[NPR, “All Things Considered, June 7, 1999]

As a convert to Orthodox Christianity, I’ ve been undecided about Kosovo. While most Orthodox take a pro-Serb position, I don’t feel compelled to follow; when I converted I joined a faith, not an ethnic group. Throughout history members of my Church have done both good and evil, and Serbia’s Orthodox identity does not alone prove their cause is just.

On the other hand, I’m reflexively anti-war, and have been since my college days during Viet Nam. Perhaps war can be a justifiable last resort, but this situation doesn’ t reach that standard. In fact, it’ s simply stupid for a third party to step into a centuries-old tribal conflict. Justice can’t be enforced on such a tangle, because today’s oppressors were yesterday’ s victims: Serbs were slaughtered by Croats and Albanians under Hitler. Finally, it’s never right to bomb civilians in order to spare the lives of soldiers.

Still, I couldn’ t understand why Serbian Orthodox would support Milosevic ‘s bloody regime, so contrary to our faith. Milosevic is not a member of our Church, but an erstwhile communist and atheist.

I discovered that Orthodox leadership has been opposing him for years. The aged head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, began leading demonstrations against Milosevic in the streets of Belgrade seven years ago. At that time he held a press conference in Washington to warn against the Belgrade regime, and presented the Holy Synod’ s call for a new government. Yet the press conference was sparsely attended, and the warning went unheeded.

In recent years Bishop Artemije of Kosovo has made several trips to Washington, urging support for conversations between Albanians and Serbian anti-Milosevic forces, warning that a NATO attack would destroy the growing democratic resistance movement and spur Milosevic to further cruelties. His appeal, too, fell on deaf ears.

Recently Belgrade demanded that Patriarch Pavle condemn the bombing and voice support for Milosevic. He refused. They ordered him to state that the regime has committed no atrocities. He declined, saying  ”God knows the truth.“ Throughout the region, international Orthodox charities continue offering relief to all, regardless of background.

So why do people think Serbian Orthodox support Milosevic? Because Orthodoxy has become a fashionable part of Serb patriotic identity. Sixty years of communism suppressed and ridiculed the Church, though the holy places were preserved as museums of ethnic pride. The men who fill Yugoslav armies were raised as atheists, yet now, in the face of war, there is nostalgia for the church’ s symbols. Parish priests estimate that only five percent of the population is baptized, and fewer still follow or comprehend the faith When Milosevic proclaims ”Nationalism is religion and religion is nationalism!“  he states in simplest form what the Church calls the sin of ”phyletism.“

But misuse of the faith’s symbols makes it hard for the church’s true message to be heard. Fr. Sava, assistant abbot of Kosovo’s Decani Monastery, was distressed to find that Yugoslav security forces had painted crosses on walls in order to taunt ethnic Albanians. He said,  ”It was an abuse because the cross was being used as a symbol of hate. The cross is a symbol of love and of tolerance, of spiritual and human values. It is unacceptable to use it to humiliate anyone.“

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

NPR CommentariesOrthodoxy