Serbian ‘cybermonk’ encourages inter-ethnic dialogue in Kosovo

Sava Janjic, an archdeacon at the Serbian Orthodox Decani Monastery in Kosovo, is working to establish inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue. [Decani Visoki Monastery]

Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina

 22/07/13

The Serbian Orthodox Church wants to become more engaged with the local community in Kosovo.

A Serbian Orthodox clergyman whose progressive viewpoints and embrace of social media have earned him the nickname “cybermonk” is working to facilitate dialogue and understanding between Serbs and Albanians.

As an archdeacon at the Serbian Orthodox Decani Monastery in western Kosovo, Sava Janjic is uniquely positioned to help smooth strained relations between the two ethnicities and has been doing so, both in the community and online.

In an interview with SETimes, Janjic, who regularly discusses religious issues on Twitter and Facebook, spoke about the moderate role religion should play in fighting extremism and encouraging inter-ethnic and inter-faith dialogue.

“Our church is actively engaged in regular contacts with the Muslim and Catholic communities in Kosovo. We are working together to understand one another better and give our contribution to the society in which we live,” Janjic said.

Recently Janjic participated in an inter-faith conference in Pec organised by Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry, which brought together religious leaders from Kosovo and around the world.

“At the same time our church is trying to dissociate herself as much as possible from the daily politics. We believe that religion must be separated from politics and that our main focus must be our religious activities, human rights and humanitarian work,” Janjic said.

Shqipe Shaqiri, executive director of the Pristina Centre for Tolerance and Co-operation, toldSETimes that the views Janjic expressed are in contrast to those of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), which has not distanced itself from its involvement during the Yugoslav wars.

“The SOC played a role during the Yugoslav wars to give moral support to Serbian soldiers in the battlefields, and still it plays a role in Serbian politics. Yet the SOC has not changed the position about Kosovo and needs to reflect more like Sava Janjic,” Shaqiri said.

In April, the church released a statement that was critical of the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, saying that it amounted to recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

“The church, as a part of the society, has the right to take positions regarding developments in the society, particularly after the war in Kosovo,” Janjic said. “This role is understandable, since the church took care of the people also during the Ottoman times. This refers to human rights, religious rights and humanitarian assistance. Of course, the church should not get involved in the work of political parties or ideologies. … We cannot be indifferent to what is happening to our people because the faithful people constitute the church, and we feel a duty to point out problems and offer some solutions, sometimes to criticise the secular authorities. However, we cannot be politically engaged in daily politics, because this belongs to democratically elected representatives. I say this not only in my name, but also in the name of our Diocese in Kosovo.”

Janjic said the main role of religion is to help achieve deeper spiritual realisation and increase the capacity to love and respect others. He added that religious leaders must not only distance themselves from aggressive ideologies but also must actively work on reconciliation and tolerance.

“It is essential to learn more about other traditions and to combat false perceptions which often serve as a pretext for hatred and violent actions. It is also good to work together in all fields in which there is a common interest and jointly stand for human rights of all citizens regardless of their ethnicity or religious affiliation,” Janjic said.

Janjic said conflicts are often misrepresented as results of civil or religious antagonisms.

“Proponents of aggressive ideologies misuse religion and religious symbols in order to hide their true intentions and mobilise more of their supporters. Both Christian and Muslim leaders must not, therefore, allow [themselves] to get absorbed into the so-called clash of civilisations,” Janjic said.

Janjic is a critic of nationalist voices in the Serbian and Albanian communities, adding that both have misused religion and wrongly viewed it as a banner of the opposite side. Serb nationalists saw mosques as symbols of centuries of Muslim rule, while Albanian nationalists, particularly after the war, saw Serbian churches as symbols of Serbian political rule.

“In both cases this was a misinterpretation,” Janjic said. “Religion in its essence is not the root of nationalism and hatred. The religious sites, both Muslim and Christian, are the common value of this society and most of them survived for centuries. Destroying holy sites is damaging the dignity of the aggressor’s side and is reducing the national ideologies to the level of barbarism. Regrettably, in the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, both Muslim and Christian sites suffered.”

Janjic said the Serbian Orthodox Church and Albanian Islamic Community have a joint message: The conflict in Kosovo is not a religious conflict and the religious communities must be above daily politics. He added that Kosovo is a mosaic of different cultures and religious traditions and only as such has a value and can gain true respect in the world.

“Our relations are good and open [with the Islamic Community]. However, we have still lots of work to do. Currently there is a good understanding on the top level but still we lack co-operation on the local level where local religious representatives could do much more together,” Janjic said.

“Last year, I participated in a radio programme with the local imam in Decani. We both sent positive and reconciliatory messages. Our main task is to prevent involvement of religion in daily politics and to restrain our people as much as we can from any act of violence and appeal on them constantly to resolve all problems in dialogue and neighbourly respect.”

The Decani Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is still under KFOR protection. The monastery has been attacked four times since the end of the war in 1999, most recently in 2007 when a local Kosovo Albanian fired a rocket propelled grenade at the site. The attacker was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

“I strongly believe that this monastery does not deserve such treatment particularly because Kosovo Albanian refugees during the war found refuge here and we actively worked with humanitarian organisations to help all people in this area, regardless of their ethnicity,” Janjic said.

Janjic said relations with the local authorities are still not satisfactory but hopes that monks and the Serbian community will be able to become fully integrated in the municipality of Decan as free and equal citizens.

Citizens in Decan praise the work of the monastery and the help they received from the monks during the war.

“[My] family members were hidden in the monastery in 1999. They were escaping from Serbian forces and found shelter in a Serbian-run monastery. This is something which must be praised and we need to work more for a better understanding,” Shpat Binakaj, a student from Decan, told SETimes.

Agron Beqiri, a researcher at the Kosovar Centre for European and Public Policy, told SETimes that religious leaders in Kosovo can play a significant role in promoting inter-ethnic tolerance.

“Religious institutions, both Islamic and Orthodox, are the most trusted institutions by Albanians and Serbs, thus their leaders have a special duty to promote better understanding between the two communities,” Beqiri said. “I believe by preaching peace and tolerance in their sermons, they will do a great job for their communities.”

Do you support Sava Janjic’s work in speaking out against extremism and encouraging inter-ethnic and inter-faith dialogue? Please make your opinions known by posting a comment below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.