By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BELGRADE/PRISTINA/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Serbian Orthodox Christians in Kosovo struggle with a “sharp rise” in threats and vandalism against their churches and other religious sites, human rights investigators told BosNewsLife Tuesday, January 22.
Since this month’s Orthodox Christmas assailants attacked a monastery, set on fire a chapel and wooden crosses, and destroyed over 100 Orthodox tombstones, reported Belgrade-based Balkan rights group Centar 9.
The clashes are linked to anger within Kosovo’s mainly Muslim Albanian population about the removal of a memorial to fallen fighters in neighboring Serbia.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians protested after some 200 masked Serbian police officers backed by armored personnel carriers removed the monument Sunday, January 20, in the town of Presevo.
It bore the names of 27 ethnic Albanian fighters killed during the 2000 conflict in the Presevo Valley, a spillover from the 1999 war in Kosovo, Serbia’s former province.
Local media reported that the ‘Albanian National Army’ group asked supporters on social website Facebook to retaliate by “hitting the Serbs where it hurts them the most,” an apparent reference to churches and other religious sites.
Soon after, dozens of men were seen marching to the Serbian monastery
‘Assumption of the Holy Mother of God’ in Kosovo, which was recently rebuild after being demolished in a 2004 demonstration.
Kosovo police, backed by international police and peacekeepers, dispersed the crowd after they threw stones and firecrackers in last Sunday’s unrest, witnesses said.
Elsewhere, a small chapel was set on fire at an Orthodox graveyard in the ethnically mixed village of Milosevo, while in Priluzje village unknown attackers burned several wooden crosses and exploded a large tombstone, Centar 9 told BosNewsLife.
The January 20-21 unrest also saw the destruction of dozens of Orthodox tombstones, including 27 in Klokot village, Centar 9 said.
Several Orthodox graveyards and tombstones were also vandalized in the villages of Orthodox Christians in Kosovo face uncertain future.
Priluzje, Miloseva, Plemetina and Suvo Grlo, in Srbica county, according to rights investigators.
Adding to tensions, at least one gun was fired at a Serbian monument to “the victims of 1999 NATO [military alliance] bombing” which was aimed at forcing Serb forces to end a crackdown on independence seeking ethnic Albanians.
The monument also remembers Serbian children killed in ethnic clashes in 2003 near the Bistrica river, Centar 9 said.
“This [shooting] incident greatly disturbed thousands of Serbs still living in this area,” the group explained.
Tensions have risen since earlier this month 56 Orthodox tombstones were destroyed at the Kosovo Polje graveyard, “in the midst of Serbian Eastern Orthodox celebrations of Christmas holidays,” explained Centar 9.
Kosovo police has been blamed for playing down the violence by reportedly saying the Christmas incident happened at the same location of previous graveyard vandalism. “The incident occurred in Kosovo Polje, in central Kosovo, and not in the village of Makarabe,” as claimed by police, Centar 9 said.
United Nations representatives condemned the attacks.
Fewer than 100,000 Serbs, many of them Orthodx Christians, have remained in Kosovo following a post-war exodus of non-Albanians. They live in separate areas watched over by NATO peacekeepers.
Western diplomats have expressed frustration over the slow progress towards reconciliation among the different groups. Kosovo, which broke away and later declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is recognized by some 90 nations, but not Serbia and its key ally Russia.
Belgrade has proposed autonomy for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo in exchange for supporting Kosovo’s bid to join the United Nations. Pristina rejects these conditions.