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article imageThe singular voice of Father Sava, a Serb abbot in Kosovo

By Nicolas GAUDICHET and Ismet HAJDARI (AFP)     Jun 29, 2019 in World

Serbia and Kosovo's leaders do not agree on much these days, but they do share one uncompromising critic: Father Sava, the social media-savvy abbot of a medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery.

Clad in black robes, bespectacled and with a wiry grey beard, Sava Janjic is the guardian of 14th-century Visoki Decani monastery, a UNESCO heritage site lying in the forested foothills of western Kosovo.

The 53-year-old first arrived to the abbey as a monk in 1992, when Albanian-majority Kosovo was still a province of Serbia.

But before the end of the decade, Kosovo was convulsed by a separatist war that eventually saw it break off from Serbia and declare independence in 2008.

That move is still an acute source of pain in Belgrade, which refuses to accept the statehood of an area it considers the cradle of Serbia's Orthodox faith and culture.

Troops with KFOR  the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo  still protect the Decani Monastery
Troops with KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, still protect the Decani Monastery
STRINGER, AFP

The war, which claimed 13,000 lives, mostly Kosovo Albanians, triggered an exodus of Serbs from the area, leaving the Orthodox churches and Serb communities who remained in a precarious position.

Today, Decani is guarded by NATO-led troops, its walls topped with barbed wire.

From inside, Father Sava speaks his mind -- to the media and frequently on Twitter -- expressing his disapproval of both the Serbian and Kosovo politicians tasked with tamping down the unresolved tensions of the war.

Not only is he eyed with deep suspicion in Pristina, but he has been condemned as a "traitor" in Belgrade.

- 'Not encouraged' -

The religious leader does not see himself as political.

But he is a fierce advocate of the roughly 120,000 Serbs who still live in Kosovo.

"To be a Serb, it's not easy," Sava told AFP, standing outside the white-stone church inside the monastery's walls.

"There is a big discrepancy between how Serbs are treated by the law on paper, and how Serbs are treated by the law in practice," he says.

Serb cemeteries are poorly maintained, an association intended to unite their communities never got off the ground, and Serbian's status as an official language is not respected, he says.

NATO troops guard the access to the 14-century monastery  and its walls are topped with barbed wire ...
NATO troops guard the access to the 14-century monastery, and its walls are topped with barbed wire after a series of attacks
STRINGER, AFP

Sava is convinced Kosovo leaders are trying to gradually make Serbs quit Kosovo to turn it into a fully ethnic Albanian territory.

But the abbot's defence of Serbs does not make him an ally of Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic.

The president and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci have struggled to make progress in talks to normalise ties.

"We are not encouraged by this couple," says Sava, who is quick to highlight both mens' chequered pasts.

Vucic served as minister of information for Serbia's strongman Slobodoan Milosevic in the 1990s, notes Sava, describing him as a "notorious persecutor of medias, who was authorising inflammatory texts against minorities".

Thaci, a former political leader of the ethnic Albania rebel fighters, "is under serious allegations of crimes", he adds.

- Protection still needed -

Sava has been particularly critical of a proposed deal between the neighbours that would involve trading a piece of northern Kosovo that is home mainly to Serbs for a sliver of southern Serbia that has an ethnic Albanian majority.

'To be a Serb  it's not easy ' Sava told AFP
'To be a Serb, it's not easy,' Sava told AFP
STRINGER, AFP

Such a plan "makes it very clear that only one ethnic group and one religion can live in one territory and others can not," he argues.

That is a concern shared by rights groups.

He also believes it would further isolate other Serb communities in Kosovo.

"Partition scenarios never happen peacefully," he says, arguing that the deal would likely increase the pressure on Serbian Orthodox monasteries.

And the protection from NATO-led KFOR troops is still very much needed, he says.

Recent incidents at his monastery include mortar attacks in 2000; bazooka attacks in 2007; and graffiti referring to the Islamic State group in 2014.

During anti-Serb riots in March 2004, grenades were thrown at the monastery, he added.

- Land dispute -

Though Sava may begrudge Pristina's authority, he has acknowledged that he has to accept a certain level of cooperation to properly defend his people.

The monastery is not under threat from the Kosovo authorities  says Bashkim Ramosaj  the mayor of De...
The monastery is not under threat from the Kosovo authorities, says Bashkim Ramosaj, the mayor of Decani
STRINGER, AFP

Despite criticism from some corners of Belgrade, he carries an official Kosovo ID card.

That helped the monastery win a court case that recognised its ownership of 24 hectares (60 acres) of land that had been claimed by the local municipality.

The ruling should have ended a 16-year dispute, but the mayor of the city, Bashkim Ramosaj, still refuses to register the land title, calling it "unfair" and "political".

The "fence and the walls" around the monastery "are there just to create a propaganda that the monastery is threatened by this nation", he argues.

For Sava, the failure to respect the verdict sums up the discrimination his community endures.

But his advice -- that Kosovo and Serbia's leaders return to the negotiation table -- seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

After a months-long moratorium on talks, the latest planned summit in July was postponed indefinitely.

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