I attended the Enthronement Ceremonies of the new leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irenjy, at the ancient seat of the Patriarchate in Pec in Kosovo. What follows is my account of this extraordinary event. But it was also a missed opportunity for the beginnings of reconciliation between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.
This missed opportunity was down to the arrogance, ignorance and indifference of officials of the European Union. Here is my story followed by a brief analysis of why the Enthronement was a missed opportunity, and why I feel strongly about this.
The Journey There
Friday – Peter Pelz advised me not to talk about the project; not to use the occasion for networking. I was a guest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and it would not be right to start speaking about it unless I was asked. This was just the advice I needed. It was brought home to me when I arrived at Belgrade airport to be greeted by two members of the Protocol Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was whisked through passport control, and into a waiting car with a police escort. The driver negotiated Belgrade’s rush hour with aplomb.
Saturday. We left Belgrade at midday. In the morning I was having coffee. Three Belgrade matrons carrying all before them and well into their sixties descended on me, intrigued by my appearance (I was wearing a cassock). ‘What are you doing here?’ they asked.
I explained. ‘We like our new Patriarch,’ they told me. ‘He is very simple and he is not like our politicians. We have never been to Pec, but we believe it is a very nice place,’ and then they spoke nostalgically about a place they had never visited.
We travelled to Pec in three coaches – ‘we’ being a bunch of Orthodox Bishops from all over the world – India, Russia (a hefty delegation this one), the US and European Orthodox communities. There were a couple of Catholic Bishops from the Vatican, some Protestant ministers and Jonathan Goodall, Rowan Williams’ secretary on Ecumenical affairs, and myself. The seat next to me was empty so a number of Bishops asked if they minded if they could put their Jermyn Street hatboxes, containing their crowns, on it because the boxes were too large to fit on the racks. I resisted the temptation to try one on.
The journey to Pec takes about twelve hours. We were due to be there at 10.00 on Sunday so arrangements had been made for us to sleep in Mitrovica – but no one was sure where.
The journey through Central Serbia down into Kosovo says everything about the separateness of Kosovo from anywhere. The landscape becomes steadily wilder up to the foothills of mountains. We followed the river, and cutting through a gorge, left behind the fertile hills and valleys.
At 4 o’clock we stopped for lunch at Zica Monastery. We left the bus, and immediately entered the Church – greeted by the local bishop and a crowd of clergy and clouds of incense. I thought we were due for a long service – but no, this was just a welcome. Eighty nuns live in the monastery – and had prepared lunch for us. We left Zica in the late afternoon, the weather warm and mild. We arrived at the border with Kosovo. ’Ha!’ said a Serb Bishop,’now we are foreigners.’
Two hours later we arrived in Mitrovica – the divided city in Kosovo. The North from which we had come is predominantly Serb and looks to Belgrade. It does not recognise Pristina or the rule of law which EULEX – the EU mission for law enforcement – provides. There is a steady stream of ‘incidents’. This was my third visit to Mitrovica but the first where I stopped in Serb Mitrovica North. As we snaked around the narrow streets, the poverty, scarce street lighting and the sight of uncollected refuse spoke of neglect. Eventually we arrived at the University, home to about ten thousand students, many from the Serb enclaves in the south of Kosovo (who incidentally would never return to these enclaves, preferring to move to Belgrade or Nis). Here Serbia had spent a lot of money bringing the University up to as good a standard as anywhere.
‘Fish on the left; meat on the right ‘ a stern monk announced, as we entered the dining room. I thought I would try the fish: fried but since we were over an hour late it was cold. We were staying in students’ rooms. I found my name on a list – with the number 4 next to it. It seemed I was due to share a room with three Orthodox bishops. The receptionists at the entrance to the accommodation had given up; they more or less threw keys at anyone who asked. I found some keys, and my room; then locked the door behind me. No one appeared, so I was spared sleeping with three Bishops.
Next day we crossed the River Ibar into Kosovo Albanian territory. Hardly any Serbs here. Bishops crossed themselves as we approached the bridge. We had a two hour drive to Pec – another warm day. We were led by a police escort. The security was discreet; local Kosovo police guarded access points. PEC. We arrived in Pec at 9.30 – half an hour before the Liturgy was due to start. Pec is the second city after Pristina – about seventy thousand people live there. There are no Serbs – driven out after 1999 and later in 2004 when thirty Serb monasteries and churches were torched. The town was nearly deserted. A few young men stared at us as we drove at speed to the Patriarchate. Some Kosovo flags had been draped around the lamp posts. As we approached, local police had been replaced by a few NATO soldiers – nothing formidable. I noticed a couple of women soldiers, smoking and wandering around. In the car park of the Monastery there were about forty coaches, bringing Serbs from Bosnia and Montenegro.
Three hundred of us were crammed into a church normally holding about one hundred. The walls were covered in frescoes from the 14th century. I would have plenty of time to look at them during the two and half hour liturgy. We VIPs were escorted into the church and applauded by a crowd of about three thousand who followed the liturgy outside on television screens. I was steered to the right and ended up face to face with Crown Prince Alexander whom I have met several times before. He introduced me to his wife and son. We talked about the Organ recital I will be giving in Belgrade next year. ‘I am ready,’ he said.
Noticing that I was considered important since I had a long conversation with the King someone produced a chair. I was grateful for that! Then out of the crowd emerged two elderly women – abbesses. I recognised one of them. Both small in stature, maybe five and a half feet no more they were clad head to toe in black with little of their faces showing. They reminded me of the way some Muslim women dress. They had sticks and pushed their way passed us. They disappeared drowned in a sea of black – they certainly could see nothing hidden among those black cassocks. After a few moments they appeared. Ignoring my offer of a chair, they arrived in the front row and stood for the entire liturgy. The President of Serbia, Boris Tadic arrived. He was the only Serb politician invited by the Church. I looked at him closely. He has the appearance of an ageing once glamorous footballer; I usually like what he says but my Serb friends are more sceptical. Later he spoke at the Banquet. He did not go into automatic pilot, and was clearly comfortable in Pec. He had one minder with him; I could easily have spoken to him but I remembered Peter’s advice. Then there was silence. This is unusual in an Orthodox liturgy, which is a mixture of the formal – very elaborate vestments – and the informal: people come in and out of the church as they wish, although once in the church it would be difficult on this occasion to get out. Health and Safety regulations had not arrived in Pec. Had there been a fire, I doubt if I and many others would have survived. The liturgy began; the Patriarch arrived with fourteen others from around the world. Television lights picked out the jewels on the crowns twinkling. The choir sang continuously during the liturgy, the deeply moving music quiet all the way through – sometimes pleading, always plaintive.
As we left we passed the choir, young people in their twenties – their faces blanched with tiredness staring at us intently. I wanted to hug them all. While we waited for Patriarch Irenjy to appear we sat and waited. I had a significant conversation with the mufti of Belgrade who with two other Serbian muftis attracted much attention. I had met him before and he remembered our visit. This was his seventh visit to Pec. He asked about our work and said: ‘The doors are slowly opening; it will be difficult, but you can bring people together.’ With the vast crowd in the courtyard we waited for the Patriarch. Sometimes people sang ‘May he live forever’ (a version of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow). He eventually emerged, gave a short homily, and we were then shown to a large marquee for the banquet.
Conversation was impossible because now came the time for the story of Kosovo to be told – past and present sufferings; the sound system collapsed after a bit so I think this narrative had to be curtailed. Later during the speeches someone said how much they appreciated the suffering of the Patriarch, and how much he has to bear. Irenjy, chasing a bit of meat round an empty plate, did not look as if he was suffering. He caught my eye, and smiled.
After more speeches I felt I had had enough – along with others it seemed, as half of the audience had now left. I went outside. The queue outside the loos had dwindled. A smiling nun indicated where we had to go – men this side, women the other side. People prepared to leave. The community had gathered to celebrate a blessing on the Patriarch. Quiet chatter here and there. Peaceful. The buzz of conversation momentarily interrupted by the clattering of the helicopter as it transported President Tadic back to Belgrade. A little bit of Serbia in a foreign land.
“And then I realised something was missing. There was not one Kosovo Albanian. No Albanian had been invited – not one. The Soul of Europe had spent seven months telling whoever would listen: this event was an opportunity to bring former enemies round the table. No one paid attention”
From Cathy Ashton, the recently appointed foreign minister of the EU, to her Cabinet, senior EU officials in Pristina, Belgrade and Brussels. I told them that given our experience I would ensure both the satisfaction of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Kosovo Albanian government. We would see to it that the local mayors would attend the ceremony along with the Minister of Culture, and the Minister for Communities from the Kosovo government, and that was for starters. They chose not to listen to me. Furthermore I was rung in July by Pierre Mirel, Director for Western Balkans at the Directorate General for Enlargement at the European Commission, informing me that the Enthronement had been ‘downgraded’. This was not true. Either he did not know or he was politely telling me to get lost. To return to the story: I retreated to the coach. At the back of the coach a big bishop with a bushy beard sat snoring. I felt deflated, defeated. All I wanted to do was to return home as soon as I could. It had suddenly become too wearing taking on the EU. And all we were asking for was peanuts to get this process underway. I slept for a bit, and woke up feeling restored and determined to take this further. The Soul of Europe does not give up.
We began the journey back to Belgrade. I reckoned we would be in the hotel by 2am, but it was 4.30 before we arrived. We diverted to a town two hundred kilometres from Belgrade. We arrived at midnight, at the local Orthodox church. There was another bishop, more singing and clouds of incense, and the Patriarch waiting to greet us. After this we were ushered into a hall for another banquet. I have never seen so much food – fish of every kind from the ones whose eyes stare at you to fried squid, salads, beef-burgers, a vast range of cheese; wine galore. ’Eat, eat!’ a priest prodded me, sensing my reluctance. ‘It is good food.’ Certainly it was, but a bit late.
We arrived in Belgrade. Just as were getting ready to leave the bus, a bishop who spoke English fluently said: ‘It has been a most solemn day for the Serbian Orthodox Church, but you – our guests – have made it very special. We thank you for coming, with all our heart’. He then read a prayer – from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – which is also in the prayers set for Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer: Almighty God who has given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests. Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge and thy truth and in the world to come life everlasting. Timely. I got to bed at 4.45; at 7.30 the protocol team arrived; with the police escort we drove at speed to the airport. And so home.
In July a ruling about the legality of Kosovo declaring independence in 2008 was given. It said that the declaration was not illegal. The Kosovo government expected a rush of recognition from countries that had not officially done so yet, so that it could take its seat at the UN. Nothing happened. The Serbs were humiliated since they had widely expected the ruling would be in their favour. But both Belgrade and Pristina have agreed to some sort of talks – probably brokered by the EU. There is much flurry and publicity about this.
It seems likely that Serbia will eventually and publicly relinquish Kosovo – provided that agreement has been reached about the north of Kosovo, and about the status and security of the monasteries. It is likely that some sort of extra-territorial status will be proposed with an international guard similar to the Swiss Guard at the Vatican for Pec, Decani and five other monasteries.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is a widely trusted institution in Serbia. No Serb government would allow any proposed agreement to be discussed without an assurance about the security of the monks and nuns. The monasteries have become one of the bargaining counters. However no agreement would be worth anything, not even if it is ratified internationally, unless it has genuine support locally. Both Bosnia and Kosovo have endured all sorts of bright ideas by international organisations but these ideas fizzled out. Agreements have to be ‘owned’; structures have to be ‘inhabited’. Former enemies have to get together. And that is where we come in.
Why the reluctance to invite the Soul of Europe to participate?
1. Top down interventions are often seen as sufficient – then: ‘the people have to get on with it’. Mediation is a nice little afterthought in this scenario. There are of course ‘Calls for Proposals’ for building civil society – but the procedure is so cumbersome – to say the least. For me this represents an example of ‘displacement activity’.
2. There is an unspoken understanding that conflict transformation is counter cultural; it goes against the grain. It is regarded as too difficult, too soft, too open-ended, too disruptive, too risky. Institutions usually think in terms of ladders; in our work we think of circles. Therefore, the EU keeps us at arms length, though if we do succeed – as with the Coventry Consultation – we become the flavour of the month. There is the added difficulty of how a large, international organisation answerable to twenty seven countries, relates to small but significant initiatives like ours.
Moreover I have noticed that officials don’t find it easy to learn anything. When I have asked – how do you learn, I am told: well, there are always reports to read and circulate. The Soul of Europe has always worked at four levels: the local, the medium ground, the national and international. And we have taken time to reflect on what we do. International organisations have their own internal dynamics – one of them fostering a sort of inertia, managementitis, which prevents anyone from taking a grip of a situation and pushing it forward. And of course there is the ‘target’ culture – where outcomes have to be delivered on time – no room for serendipity or mistakes. Of course a small organisation like ours has also its own problems – not least finding the ‘peanuts’, etc 3.
There is too much illiteracy about religion in international organisations. Neutrality is the word used to describe the EU’s attitude to religion. In fact, most officials I have met over the last ten years have no interest in religion, either endorsing the one- dimensional Dawkins approach or repeating the nonsense that religion is ok as long as it belongs to the private sphere. Really? So they need to be educated about religion. My clerical collar is a sure sign to provoke these responses. I can think of only two officials I have met who have ever bothered to attend the Orthodox liturgy or Muslim prayers.
When the British Ambassador in Pristina asked me what ‘added value’ the Soul of Europe brings, I told him: I am a religious leader – respected by Muslims. In Skopje three years ago, for example, when I was guest lecturer on Orthodox monastic culture, one member of the group met the mufti of Skopje. Learning that I was the guest lecturer he said: ‘Mr Reevis is very important for us Muslims.’ (He was referring to our activities with respect to the Ferhadija Mosque). And when I asked Fr Vranic at the HQ of the Serbian Orthodox Church, why I had been invited to the ceremony in Pec, he said: ‘Because you are a dear friend of the Orthodox Church’. International officials need to wake up to the possibility of some religious leaders being useful in the long process of reconciliation. But what we find most difficult to deal with is the world weary cynicism of so many internationals. A young British diplomat told me: ‘At least they are not fighting each other in Kosovo.’ And they talk about ‘moving on’ – always with their eyes on the next job. My friends in Bosnia and Kosovo don’t find it easy to move on!!
What next? A few of us will be going to Kosovo in November to keep the project alive. We shall continue our search for ‘peanuts’ and I have not given up on the EU. I will also be looking for some publicity about our proposals. Meanwhile – I guess the situation in Pec has deteriorated. Those walls of paranoia and suspicion will have thickened since October 3rd. It could have been so different. Even as I write we should be in Pec – meeting the mayor and his cabinet, meeting the Kosovo politicians in Pristina, getting their reactions at being excluded, and we should be listening hard to the Serbs – how they felt about the absence of Albanians.
THANK YOU FOR READING THIS LONG ACCOUNT. I look forward to any response.
Thank you, Donald