Eparchy of Raska-Prizren reacts to the mass held at St. Nicholas Church: Catholic Diocese of Kosovo seriously undermines hitherto fairly correct interfaith relations

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Kosovo Dode Gjergji and the retired Bishop of Bar Zef Gashi with their clergy and a group of believers served a mass on Thursday at the remains of the Orthodox Christian cathedral of St. Nicholas in the vicinity of the Novo Brdo medieval fortress. The Eparchy of Raska-Prizren reacted to the occasion, expressing „deep disappointment“ over this “abuse and provocation.” The Eparchy announced it will seek protection from local and international institutions, as well as raise the issue with the Vatican.

As it was announced, the mass was held in commemoration of August 1 – the (Albanian) Diaspora Day and, for the very first time, at the “Catholic Church of St. Nicholas.” The mass was attended by the head of the Kosovo Institute for protection of cultural monuments, Ismet Hajrullahu.

On the other hand, Serbian history and Christianity considers the same church as a Serbian Orthodox church and the cathedral church for the Serbian Orthodox bishops of Novo Brdo and Gracanica.

The Diocese of Raska-Prizren is deeply disappointed with this apparent act of abuse of the spiritual and cultural heritage of the SOC, on a site founded and built by medieval Serbian rulers, which has been noted in numerous professional and historical literatures, both domestic and foreign. Preserved stone-work artifacts with inscriptions from the church of St. Nicholas make it clear whose church it is.

“By serving mass on the grounds of the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kosovo seriously undermines hitherto fairly correct interfaith relations in Kosovo and Metohija and politicizes the heritage of the SOC, which, under Ahtisaari plan and at the proposal of our Church, was included in the Special Protective Zone with the consent of Kosovo Albanian representatives,” the Eparchy wrote in a statement.

It emphasised that the words heard at Thursday’s mass “do not contribute at all to building the Orthodox Church’s interfaith relationship with Roman Catholics.” Furthermore, in theory Eparchy’s words, it will prompt the SOC to raise this issue in contact with the Vatican’s competent representatives.

The Eparchy confirmed that the remains of a medieval Roman Catholic church known as the “Saxon Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary” are located not far from the Orthodox church. According to the Eparchy, this church was built and used by Saxon miners and merchants of Dubrovnik with the consent of the Serbian medieval rulers.

“It is quite a reasonable question why the Roman Catholic bishops and their believers did not gather on the remains of their former church, but did so on the foundations of the Orthodox cathedral of Novo Brdo, the ancient seats of the Orthodox Serbian Metropolitans of Novo Brdo,” the Eparchy of Raska-Prizren underlined.

The Eparchy expressed its gravest concern and disagreement with Kosovo and international institutions due to “unauthorized works” by the Kosovo Ministry of Culture (institute for Archeology) at this medieval Serbian Orthodox site as well. They recalled that this church is located within the Special Protected Zone of Novo Brdo where all works without specific consent are prohibited.

In addition, the Eparchy noted that after the clearing of the ground the Kosovo archeologists also recently opened medieval tombs in the church “without authorization and with no expertize erected pillars in the central part of the church.”

Research on St. Nicholas Church documented during Yugoslav times

Comprehensive archaeological research and excavations were done at the St. Nicholas Church in the Yugoslav times and they found artifacts are stored in Belgrade, especially the remnants of the stonework with inscriptions in Cyrillic script which clearly witness the history of the church. The Eparchy recalled that all of the research done on St. Nicholas Church and its history is presented in detail in the book, “The Church of St. Nicholas—the Cathedral of Novo Brdo” by archaeologists Mark Popovic and Igor Bjelic, published in Serbian and in English in Belgrade in 2018.

“On the basis of the massive amount of historical and archaeological sources cited, photographs of the location, excavated artifacts, drawings, and possible ideal reconstructions of the church, we can get, for now, the most complete picture of Novo Brdo’s Cathedral Church,” they added.

The Eparchy of Raska-Prizren will once again request from competent international and local institutions to protect the location of the church of St. Nicholas from “further provocations.”

“Pristina authorities have already been severely criticized for not respecting religious rights of the SOC in the latest U.S. State Department report, which only confirms that this latest provocation is no exception,” the Eparchy concluded.

The dispute of the legacy of the Novo Brdo fortress and church first appeared in the public in early June when Kosovo media announced the construction on the „cathedral in Artana, formerly Novo Brdo,“ claiming that the same site is a Roman Catholic church. The Eparchy of Raska-Prizren also reacted at the time, underlining that it is one of 40 special protected zones – which are subject to a special procedure under the Kosovo laws.

„This special procedure of determining if work can be carried out on a site depends not only on the decisions of Kosovo institutions but also the position of the Serbian Orthodox Church,“ the eparchy stressed. The Serbian Minister of Culture and Information, Vladan Vukosavljevic reacted to this news by sending a letter to the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay. In the letter, citing the example of Novo Brdo, Vukosavljevic expressed „great concern and anxiety about the state of Serbian cultural heritage in Kosovo and Metohija“.

On the other hand, Roman Catholic Bishop of Kosovo, Dode Gjergji claims that it is a Roman Catholic Church.

Dode Gjergji: „We wanted to come here because it is a place that proves that we were here before we had religion, we were here before Christ’s birth, we were before the Ottomans came with Muhammad, we were here before the Slavs came. We were here, even though our memory may have been erased, we have these stones that prove that we also had faith and that we believed in what we heard in the Gospel, which tells us – This is my command: Love each other.“

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