Kosovo and Metohija are the cradle of both the Serbian state and church, as well as of the spiritual home of the centuries-old culture of the Serbian people. Around 1,300 churches, monasteries, and other sites comprising Serbia’s cultural heritage are located there. The tangible and non-tangible Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo and Metohija is an authentic and fundamental part of its national identity and our major contribution to the cultural heritage of Europe and the world.
The indivisible bond between the spiritual tradition of the Serbian people with Kosovo and Metohija is also evidenced in the etymology of the very name of Serbia’s most southern province. Metohija is a word of Greek origin meaning “the land under monastic administration”.
The rich Serbian heritage in Kosovo and Metohija is of immeasurable importance to the cultural and national history of the Serbs and is crucial for understanding its past, present, and future. In the centuries of Turkish and Austrian rule, both which followed in the wake of the historic 1389 Battle of Kosovo, it was this heritage that had a decisive impact on the spiritual and cultural life of Serbs. To this day, remains the key feature of the Serbian national being and identity. Much like the French cultural heritage cannot be imagined without Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, neither can Serbia begin to comprehend its existence without the holy sites of Dečani, Gračanica, Zočište, and the Patriarchate of Peć, where Serbia’s Patriarch has resided since the 13th century.
The many medieval buildings erected by Serbian rulers, members of the nobility, and high religious dignitaries testify to the fact that the Serb people have been present in these place for many centuries. It is important to bear in mind that today many of these sites are still not only cultural and historic monuments, but also active places of worship and homes to monastic communities.
In this sense, the acts of vandalism and attempts to destroy centuries of Serbia’s cultural heritage in Kosovo and Metohija are above all attacks against the Serbia’s cultural and national identity Furthermore, these places are not only part of the Serbia’s own heritage, but also an intrinsic historical and civilisational legacy of modern Europe and the world and it is an inalienable right of every nation to foster and preserve cultural heritage of such importance. This ultimately necessary protection must also be in line with the relevant standards of international law.
I would like to remind you that as of June 1999 – after the end of the decade’s armed conflicts – as many as 236 churches, monasteries and other properties of the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as cultural and historical sites, were attacked. A total of 174 religious buildings and 33 cultural and historical sites were destroyed, more than 10,000 church icons, religious artefacts, and art objects were stolen.
Four of these gems of world heritage – the Monastery of Dečani, the Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica, and the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš – are now all on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. In the area south of the Ibar River, not a single Serbian historical monument remains undamaged. The extent of the destruction of anything that serves as a reminder of the centuries of a Serb presence in Kosovo and Metohija is demonstrated by the fact that a pine tree believed to have been planted by medieval Serbian leader Dušan the Mighty in 1336, in the village of Nerodimlje, was cut down in 1999. In the towns south of the Ibar there is not a single street bearing a Serbian name or one named after an important Serbian historical or cultural figure.
The physical destruction of cultural monuments is not the only method used to wipe out the evidence of centuries of Serb existence on the soil of Kosovo and Metohija. Unfortunately, the goal has remained the same, but the means are becoming more and more sophisticated. Violations of property rights, usurpation of church property by institutions, denying Serbian Orthodox believers the right to practice religion, and may others examples continue to be the means to deny Serbs their rightful 1,000-year claim to a very deep cultural and spiritual bond to the region.
Particularly worrying is the continuous, systemic and strategically planned and carried out attempts at covering up or even forging historical facts in regards identity and ownership of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian people over the cultural heritage and the monasteries and churches of Kosovo and Metohija.
Contrary to historical facts, Serbian cultural heritage sites are being falsely presented as either Albanian, Byzantine, Catholic, Illyrian, and many others, which introduces a new, no less dangerous, aspect of Serbian cultural heritage annihilation in the province. Regrettably, there are many such examples.
In the database of the so-called “Kosovo” cultural heritage, the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List at the request of Serbia, has been renamed into the “Church of Saint Paraskeva”. The database description makes no mention of the fact that this is the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church. When it comes to the “reconstruction works” undertaken by the order of King Milutin, nowhere does it say that he was a Serbian medieval monarch. Furthermore, the above database includes information that the church suffered through a fire in 2004, while at the same time evading an explanation as to the concrete circumstances of this event.
One of the most beautiful and most valuable Serbian medieval art and culture monuments, as old as the Notre Dame in Paris, was set on fire during a March 2004 pogrom by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. The underreported event saw both civilians and numerous Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries subjected to two days of violence and destruction.
The trend of tampering with historical facts to erase any trace of a Serb presence in Kosovo and Metohija had its latest example during an attempt to present the Romanesque Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas in Novo Brdo, which was erected in the 14th century by the Serbian high nobility, as well as other key Serbian religious heritage sites from the same period, as Catholic churches.
The Gračanica Monastery, built by Serbian King Milutin in 1321 and dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, or the Visoki Dečani, part of the endowment of Serbian King Stefan Dečanski, cannot belong to the heritage of any other people but Serbian. The cultural and historical identity of so-called “Kosovo” cannot be artificially built on historical revisionism and the forcible physical destruction of material signs of Serbs’ presence in the area. Culture needs to be fostered and protected as a bridge between people and not, as is the case present-day Kosovo and Metohija, as an object of politically motivated abuses that would serve as a way to eliminate any reminder of Serbia and Serbs as the original majority population in the province.
Such an approach where the cultural heritage of one people is subject to a kind of cultural genocide is inadmissible and unthinkable in any democratic environment. As numerous activities are being undertaken at the international level to prevent the theft of cultural goods, we are faced with an unprecedented attempt of forcible appropriation of an entire cultural heritage of one people in a certain territory.
If the provisional institutions of self-government in Kosovo and Metohija are not ready to accept the fact that this is and always has been a land of Serbian cultural heritage, how are we to expect them to provide it with suitable protection.
With all the above in mind, the international community must not turn a blind eye to the threats that a small nation’s cultural heritage is having to endure, particularly when that nation made a major contribution to European and world culture.