"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

3.31.2008

a nationalist orthodoxy

This is the one I haven't known what to do with.

You see sites like this all over Kosova. Abandoned Serbian Orthodox churches surrounced by barbed wire that was put there by the KFOR peacekeepers to prevent further looting and defacing. It's one of the first things Steve showed me on the road into the city from the airport - a little white church, completely cut off from the community.

The church pictured above was constructed by the Serbs in the late 1990's, smack in the middle of downtown Pristina, by the University of Pristina. The majority of Albanian Kosovars being Muslim, this was about like constructing a giant middle finger in a city park - it was among the most insulting and inflammatory things the Serbs could have done.

The church was never finished, because NATO began bombing the Serbs in 1999. But other churches in now-abandoned Serb villages were. They were where people were baptized and married, where they took communion and were sent to their final rest. They were churches.

The history of the Serbian Orthodox Church is complicated, and it is inextricably tied to the Serb nationalism that Kosovars hate so much. The former seat of the church - the patriarchy - was in Kosova, in Peja, which in Serbian is spelled Pec. The Communist Yugoslav government suppressed the church, and after Communism collapsed, the church was accused of supporting Slobodan Milosevic's plan to unite the Serbs in one country through any means necessary. Kosovars, meanwhile, have a long history of opposing the church; the Kosova Liberation Army kidnapped some priests and killing at least one during the 1999 war. Serb churches were destroyed en masse in 1999, and again in rioting in 2004.

There's blood on everybody's hands.

I don't know what to think. I'm constantly perplexed by the ability of Christians to hate one another and to hate others. That Christians would be closely connected to a nationalist project to violently overtake their neighbors' territory is not the least bit surprising. It's not terribly different from the Crusades. Or from overwhelmingly Catholic Rwanda, where thousands of good Christian people had no trouble perpetrating a genocide. And while nowhere near on that scale, the continual demonizing of some branches of American Christianity by others is a sign that those of us who are part of a religion that is supposed to be defined by love are instead controlled by our fear more than ever.

The Serbs treated the Kosovar Albanians very poorly. The war and the leadup to the war were terrible for the Kosovars. We heard stories of living in exile, of entire families killed, of homes destroyed. While the diplomats have to be careful not to favor one side over the other, I don't. The Serbs were horrible in Kosova.

But the remaining Serb villages in Kosova are sad. They're obviously economically depressed, the level of reconstruction is generally lower than that in Albanian towns, and you don't stop for gas or anything else there. The people are isolated. And there are these churches...

It's taken me two weeks to write about these churches. All I can come up with for a redeeming lesson here is that the melding of church and state into an idolatrous nationalism is always dangerous. When you conflate God's mission with that of the state, the church loses its witness and its power to love. When you make politics more important than piety, you may just find yourself cut off from the community you're supposed to be serving. Once it's there, barbed wire is hard to cross.

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