Preparing for Pascha in Serbia

In the fall of 1992, Serbian Patriarch Pavle came to Washington, D.C., to explain why he had led protests in Belgrade against Slobodan Milosevic's neo-Communist regime and why the Serbian Orthodox Church's Holy Synod was calling for a new government.

His National Press Club address drew a handful of reporters and none from major media.

This past fall, Bishop Artemije of Kosovo came to Washington, D.C., and warned that the prospects for peace were bleak as long as Milosevic held power. He urged U.S. officials to seek negotiations between Serbs who oppose Milosevic and Albanians who favor non-violence. After all, both Christianity and Islam teach the faithful to live in peace.

"We are especially concerned that the past United States policy ... to rely on Milosevic as a guarantor of peace is immoral and counterproductive," Artemije told the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We appeal to all Americans to understand that the conflict in Kosovo is not between the Serbian and Albanian people, but between a secessionist extremism on one side and an oppressive and unrepresentative regime on the other."

The bishop's visit passed with barely a notice.

Today, Milosevic's opponents in Serbia are hiding in bomb shelters or hiding from secret police in the final days before Pascha (Easter in the West) on the ancient calendar used in Orthodox Christianity.

"It's especially tragic that the world hasn't been able to hear the voice of the Serbian church through all of this," said Father Alexander Webster of the Orthodox Church in America, a historian who also is a chaplain in the U.S. Army National Guard. He is the author of "The Price of Prophecy," which details both Orthodoxy's triumphs and failures in the Communist era.

"It seems like everyone, from the White House on down, has been rushing to demonize the Serbs without asking if everyone in Serbia deserves that label. The reality is more complex than that."

While some Serbian bishops have blessed past military efforts, the church has consistently condemned Milosevic and all violence against civilians -- Albanian, Croat or Serbian. The church also has opposed economic embargoes that hurt Serbian civilians and "efforts to cut Kosovo out of Yugoslavia through military force," said Webster.

The roots of this crisis are astonishingly complex, ancient and bloody. In 1204, Western crusaders sacked Constantinople, massacring Eastern Christians and Muslims. In 1389, Serbian armies fought -- virtually to the death -- while losing the Battle of Kosovo, but managed to stop the Ottoman Empire from reaching into Europe. The Kosovo Plain became holy ground.

Leap ahead to World War II, when Nazi Germany tried to use Albanian Muslims and Catholic Croats to crush the Serbs. Then Communists - such as Milosevic - took over. In the mid-1990s, the United States all but encouraged Croat efforts to purge Serbs from Krajina, where they had lived for 500 years. The West has been silent as Turkey expelled waves of Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Since morphing from Communist to nationalist, Milosevic has skillfully used Serbia's array of fears, hatreds and resentments to justify terror in Kosovo and elsewhere by his paramilitary and police units. The Serbian strongman knows that Kosovo contains 1,300 churches and monasteries, many of them irreplaceable historic sites.

Retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe, put it this way: "I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. ... Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it."

Meanwhile, the Serbian bishops have released yet another statement reminding both sides that the "way of non-violence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God in agreement with human and divine moral law and experience." They also added the following prayer to worship services in Holy Week and Pascha.

"For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans or spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even towards their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.

"Lord have mercy."