Ignoring the shepherds of Kosovo

It's tricky for anyone to sign a document in Belgrade these days with the word "peace" in the title.

But back on April 19th, while air-raid sirens screamed overhead, an interfaith quartet of shepherds released a gripping statement to their Yugoslavian flocks and to the world.

"Even as evil cannot be overcome by evil, so peace and harmony cannot be attained by war," said the seven-paragraph "Appeal for Peace," released from the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. "To be a peacemaker is the greatest duty and most noble obligation of every man. That is why we are not afraid to be the first to extend the hand of peace to one another. In the name of our future and our common life together, we pray to God and appeal to all men of good will to endeavor with maximum effort to end this war and resolve the problems by peaceful means."

The document was signed by Serbian Patriarch Pavle, Catholic Archbishop Franc Perko, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic and Rabbi Isak Asiel, all of Belgrade. Together, they called for all bombing and fighting to cease and for the return of refugees to their war-ravaged homes - both the ethnic Albanians fleeing the paramilitary units of Slobodan Milosevic or Serbs fleeing the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This cry for broader negotiations in the Balkans followed a "Kosovo Peace and Tolerance" declaration released on March 18 in Vienna. This longer, more detailed document was signed by a quartet of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish leaders from Kosovo.

Officials in NATO alliance should have the highest possible motivations to support coalitions seeking common ground in the Balkans, said Father Irinej Dobrijevic of Cleveland, who accompanied the Rev. Jesse Jackson during his unofficial mission to Belgrade, leading to the release of three American prisoners of war.

If so, ignoring the Vienna and Belgrade interfaith statements represented "major missed opportunities to support those who wanted to promote democracy" and defeat Milosevic, who is a holdover from the Communist era, said Dobrijevic, during a Capitol Hill forum this week focusing on Kosovo, sponsored by the conservative National Clergy Council. "We missed the boat when we failed to listen to these kinds of mainstream, moderate religious and intellectual leaders."

The panel of clergy and scholars addressed the question "Does might make right?", probing Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant teachings on war and how they might apply to the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia. The forum covered territory from St. Augustine's "City of God" to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the failed Paris accords, with many stops in between. Some argued that this war is unjust, or even evil, while others said its humanitarian goals were just, but questioned NATO strategies. Everyone agreed that it's hard to evaluate whether a military effort is morally justified when no one can agree on its goal. Was this a war to protect ethnic Albanians, topple Milosevic or cut Kosovo out of Yugoslavia?

Whatever happens next, it's hard to imagine anyone traveling the road to peace without the help of religious leaders in Yugoslavia - the very voices that Milosevic has attempted to silence and that Western diplomats and media have consistently ignored.

This was perfectly symbolized when Orthodox Bishop Artemije of Kosovo stood knee-deep in the snow outside the chateau at Rambouillet -- locked out of the tense negotiations between leaders of NATO, the KLA and the Milosevic government. The most radical elements of the Serbian regime have even labeled Artemije a traitor to his country, due to his years of activism on behalf of all refugees and his efforts to force a new government in Belgrade, including five U.S. trips in a year before the bombing began.

"The greatest victim of your NATO bombs is not what is demolished and broken or killed and wounded (however great that number may be), but rather something which you stopped from developing," the bishop of Kosovo later wrote, in a letter to Western leaders.

"Before your bombs, democratic forces existed here, open and with potential; there existed a democratic process, however embryonic. There existed a hope with these people, that with your support the process of democratization would come to life and prevail. All of that is gone now."