Metohija: An expression of cultural heritage, not „territorial claims“

Sava Janjić

In May, a Kosovo public service journalist received a second reprimand for using the term „Metohija“, which was interpreted as spreading racial and religious intolerance, as well as inappropriate behavior within RTK.

The Kosovo public, political and media scene were recently disturbed by what was unanimously described as a ‘scandal’. It resulted from a photo of a meeting between EU Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi and Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic at the premises of the Serbian Mission to the EU in Brussels, in which a book titled „Christian Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija“ was visible on a table. The Kosovo Minister Meliza Haradinaj Stubla sent a note of protest to the EC alleging that it promotes „ethnic hatred with offensive content and it is an unacceptable term for Kosovo.“

These are more recent of similar situations in which the term „Metohija“ has been predominantly polarizing Serbs and Albanians for decades. The absence of public debate on this issue has turned the term into a taboo topic and it is not the only term that has an impact over extending the lack of understanding between the two peoples. With the aim of encouraging public debate, the KoSSev portal published a series of op-eds on this issue.

Read previous texts:

Agon Maliqi: Why “Kosovo i Metohija” offends

Petar Ristanović: Nomen est omen: The Albanian-Serb territorial dispute is also a 50 plus years semantics battle

Fadil LepajaProfession, law, and justice

Stefan Surlic: What happened with Metohija?

By Archimandrite Sava Janjic, Abbot of Visoki Decani monastery

While following the discussion on the meaning of the name “Metohija,” especially with the recent articles by Petar Ristanović and Agon Maliqi, I felt the need to examine this issue in the broader context of the position of Serbian Orthodox heritage in the region, since the word Metohija and its historical meaning is not a product of recent history. It is rather part of a centuries-old cultural and spiritual tradition, which has been unjustly targeted by political calculations and media manipulation. This is best seen in the recent reaction of the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the book „Christian Heritage in Kosovo and Metohija,” published by the US-based Sebastian Press, which was judged to be a “chauvinist book” without any basis or justification, one which allegedly promotes “ethnic cleansing and territorial claims” (see Minister Meliza Haradinaj’s tweet on July 16th).

At the end of the armed conflict in Kosovo, the remaining Serbs, and particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church, were confronted with the systematic destruction of spiritual and cultural Orthodox heritage. This campaign, led by members of the KLA, had the clear goal of removing traces of Serbian historical and spiritual heritage from the early Middle Ages to the present day.

In that process, which culminated, but did not completely end, with clearly organized March 2004 riots, despite the presence of tens of thousands of members of international peacekeeping forces, 142 Serbian Orthodox Churches (and surrounding buildings) were destroyed or severely damaged. Among the destroyed churches were several gems of medieval church art, including the church of the Mother of God of Ljeviš (Lyevish) from the 14th century — a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Furthermore, at least 342 cemeteries were desecrated during this period (according to a 2011 OSCE report) in areas where Serbs were forced to leave after the armed conflict in 1999. Numerous icons, books, and other treasures were stolen from these gutted churches. A similar precedent of violence outside a war conflict in recent European history can perhaps only be found in the pogrom against Orthodox Christians in Constantinople in September 1955 and the violence of Turkish forces during the 1974 invasion of Northern Cyprus.

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that dozens of mosques were also destroyed or damaged in Kosovo by paramilitary units of Milošević’s regime during the 1999 armed conflict, which rightfully is to be condemned. Several leading figures from the Milošević regime have already been held accountable at the International Court of Justice for precisely these crimes, in addition to their other war crimes charges.

While all crime and vandalism is, of course, morally unacceptable, I still would point out the severity of this whole series of post-war violence, precisely because it was committed during international peacetime, and despite the presence of numerous international peacekeeping teams led by NATO forces and the UN civilian mission. Cultural heritage is often targeted in wars, which was also the case in this area, especially during World War II. After the end of the 1995 war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, there was no organized destruction of mosques or churches. In this regard, the position on the cultural and religious heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo is a historical exception and represents a shameful example in the history of peacekeeping missions. Unfortunately, to this day, only a part of our destroyed heritage has been restored.

In many ways, the general Kosovo Albanian public narrative, which justifies the post-war violence, overwhelmingly indicates a sort of collective blood revenge against Serbs and everything they had created over the centuries.

The Kosovo public often speaks of “justified revenge” for the crimes of Milošević’s regime, which minimizes moral responsibility for post-war crimes, reducing them to isolated cases or even outright denying them. I do not intend to compare the suffering of Albanian civilians during the war – which I have personally condemned on several occasions – with the war and post-war suffering of Serbs and others, I only want to point out the universal moral principle that says there are no unjustified and justified crimes. The fixation on the Serbian name “Metohija,” as well as many other toponyms of Serbian or wider Slavic origin, best confirms that there is an organic connection between the persecution of Serbs after the 1999 war, the destruction of their cultural heritage, and the existing hysteria over the name Metohija. It also confirms the fact that Serbian heritage, language, and culture are collectively perceived as a threat to Kosovo Albanian society. This can be seen in many examples of crossed out or Albanianized Serbian names of cities and villages, even though Serbian, as one of the official languages in Kosovo, is legally equal to Albanian.

In Agon Maliqi’s article, we were able to get acquainted with the attitude that is, unfortunately, prevalent among Kosovo Albanians, and even among those who are not, I sincerely hope, proponents of extreme nationalism. He honestly shared his position and I appreciate that he presented it publicly in a Serbian media outlet, although I cannot agree with him in any way, because it is not actually based on logically sound or morally acceptable arguments.

Interestingly, the word Metohija is not of Serbian, but of Greek origin (μετόχιον/metochion, plural μετόχια/metochia) and since the beginning of the Middle Ages it was used to denote monastic estates and domains. This word is mentioned in many Byzantine charters in the Greek-speaking area of the Balkans, as well as in the charters of medieval Serbian rulers, especially in this region.

This fact has never been disputed by objective world historians and linguists. Also, in the Middle Ages, the term „metoh (metoch)“ was used to denote a monastery’s ownership over one or more villages, a church, or a forest. The term „Metohija man“ can also be found in historical documents — it was used to describe people who live on monastic estates. When referring to the entire monastery property, the plural form — metohija (metochia)— is more frequently used. Thus, Dečani Monastery estate is referred to as metohija in the charters, and the metohija of the Holy Archangels or Prizren metohija is also mentioned, which refers to the estate of the Prizren episcopal see — the Mother of God of Ljeviš. The Hilandar estates were divided into groups which were also called metohija. Thus, for example, the villages east of Peć/Peja formed the Kruševo metohija, and the villages in the Prizren plain formed the Hoča metohija with its headquarters in Velika Hoča/Hoçë e Madhë. The Mother of God of Hvostan near Pec/Peja (which is in ruins today) had its metohija in Hvosno (the area around today’s Peć/Peja and Istok/Istog).

Hence, the Church developed the practice of using the word “metohija” while talking about the wider area from Peć/Peja to Prizren, precisely because of the numerous monastic “metoh” or “metohija” that were located here in the Middle Ages (especially in the period from the 12th century until the final capitulation to the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 15th century). Monastic metohija(s), such as Dečani metohija (whose boundaries are mentioned in detail in the Dečani Founding Charter of King Stefan of Dečani in 1330), which even extended to contemporary northern Albania (up to the river Valbona) and the area around Lake Plav in Montenegro.

At the time, however, the term „metohija“ did not have the political connotation it has today, nor does the Church, in recalling that past, have any territorial or political aspirations to restore its feudal estates. In Serbian folk and church use, the word metohija continued to denote the western part of the area which is today referred to as Kosovo (which Kosovo Albanians often call Dukagjini), while Kosovo in the narrower sense has always been considered by Serbs as the central plain from Mitrovica/Mitrovicë to today’s border with North Macedonia.

Numerous traces of the term „metohija“ can be found in the Dubrovnik and Venetian archives, given their regular communications with Serbian rulers. Gjon (Ivan) Kastrioti, the father of the famous Skanderbeg, as an Orthodox Christian and a respectable landowner from the area of today’s Albania, donated numerous metohs (church property) to the Serbian monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos in 1426. Kastrioti then bought the tower of St. George in Hilandar with a charter in the Serbian language in 1430, while his second son Reposh became a monk in Hilandar. Both Reposh and his father Gjon (under the monastic name Joachim) died as Hilandar monks, where they rest even today — as Athonite archives confirm.

Unfortunately, an important historical opportunity was missed when, Gjergj (George) Kastrioti, son of the aforementioned Gjon — who, with his mother Voisava, brothers Stanisha and Reposh and sisters Mara, Jelena, Angelina, Vlajka and Mamica, who had all the preconditions to become a link between Albanians and Serbs and a symbol of their reconciliation — were proclaimed in Albanian historiography as a symbol representing an exclusively Albanian tradition, or even antagonism towards Serbs. A one-sided view of history often leads to paradoxical twists.

Another person who connects the two peoples was Princess Angelina (1440-1520) from the Arianiti family, the wife of the last Serbian Prince, Stefan the Blind, who is remembered in the church and folk tradition of the Serb people as „Mother Angelina“ and is revered as a saint. These historical figures show that Serbs and Albanians have not always perceived each other as enemies, but that they were even close relatives and shared a difficult fate as brothers of the same faith before and during the Ottoman campaigns in the Balkans.

The prevailing thesis among a significant part of Kosovo Albanians today is that the word „metohija“ is something that reminds them, as Maliqi says, of „colonialism“ during the „Serbian rule“. This remarkably echoes the same „logic“ of those Serbs who, without any moral right or civilized reason, justified the demolition of mosques in the wars of the former Yugoslavia, claiming that those mosques remind them of five hundred years of slavery under the Turks in a Muslim state where Christians were the oppressed population.

According to the Maliqi or Haradinaj’s logic, Serbia should call all those who regularly use the term Sandžak (Sanjak denotes an Ottoman administrative unit) “chauvinists,” instead of using the term usually employed by Serbs for the region —Raška — which is the older, medieval name, and the state of Serbia should be constantly writing protest notes to Western ambassadors who comprise the “Friends of Sandžak” group.

Of course, this is not the case, and this Ottoman name is freely used in informal verbal communication, but also in art and literature among Muslims, and sometimes Orthodox believers from that region. We can only imagine what Priština’s reaction would be if Western ambassadors formed a “Friends of Metohija“ group.

It is more likely that the essential problem with „metohija“ and „Serbian heritage“ in Kosovo is the anachronistic idea of historical and cultural revisionism which is prevalent among Kosovo Albanians. According to this idea, Kosovo, although conceived by Western countries that have recognized it as a „multiethnic state of all citizens,“ should become an ethnically pure Albanian state, or even subsumed into a greater or ethnic Albania. Such a conception is certainly not supported by the fact that most of the world-recognized cultural heritage in this area is directly related to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and rulers from the time of the Nemanjić dynasty (12-15th century).

It is true that Serbian heritage in Kosovo, under Western influence and due to the post-war violence against churches, is recognized in both Kosovo legislation and by international representatives as „cultural heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC).“ The protection of major religious and cultural sites is partially regulated by the law on special protective zones, as per the Ahtisaari plan.

In practice, we see that this is frequently not respected, and ideas are often floated around that these legal regulations should simply be abolished or that the entire heritage in Kosovo should be nationalized according to the model applied in Albania during the communist dictator Enver Hoxha. This was also proposed in the controversial draft law on cultural heritage in 2015, which was rejected at the insistence of international representatives.

The word „metohija,“ which to some is overwhelmingly reminiscent more of gunpowder than incense, preserves the historical memory of the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of the SOC, which is mostly concentrated in the western part of today’s Kosovo. This is not a fact which would necessarily determine contemporary political realities or pose a threat to anyone.

Malevolent attempts to present the SOC in Kosovo to the world and to Kosovo Albanians as a direct collaborator with the Milošević regime or even the instigator of hatred towards Albanians are also not based on concrete facts, but on a narrative centered on the absurd idea of collective responsibility, that everything that is Serbian is connected with and complicit in all the evils that took place in the recent history of the former Yugoslavia.

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and Meothija, including both the local bishop at the time as well as the current one, are known to have been among the most vocal opponents of Milošević’s regime. From Washington DC to European capitals, the doors were wide open for church representatives, both before and after the 1999 war, which I, as a participant, can confirm. Even before the war, the church testified very clearly and unequivocally about the danger of an armed conflict between the neo-communist regime in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the secessionist guerrilla movement among Kosovo Albanians (Kosovo Liberation Army), who saw the use of force, each in their own way, as a road toward realizing their goals.

Fear of the other, as it always occurs in history, provoked aggression, and thus the vicious circle of violence continued.

Both ideologies grew out of the communist milieu; with Milošević and his projects having their roots in the Yugoslav communist dictator Tito, representing an amalgamation of socialism and toxic nationalism, while secessionist Kosovo Albanian irredentism found its ideological roots and role models in Europe’s most radical communist regime —Enver Hoxha’s Albania, who had also advocated the idea of the territorial unification of all Albanians. It should be noted that nationalist ideologues and actors in conflicts throughout the former Yugoslavia were, as a rule, former members of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, who became „ethnically and religiously“ oriented overnight, declaring themselves to be deeply concerned with the people’s interests.

Interestingly, the modern Albanian narrative of victimization glosses over the centuries of terror against the Serbian and general Christian population during Ottoman rule. It also completely ignores the events of World War II, when Greater Albania was formed under the patronage of the Nazis, in which a brutal persecution of the non-Albanian population was carried out by the SS Skanderbeg Division and members of the Albanian pro-fascist Balli Kombëtar movement, especially in present-day Kosovo and the western part of North Macedonia, all of which is historically well-documented. We also should not forget the period from 1974-1990 when Kosovo was ruled by the Communist Party and led by K/Albanian Communists and when, during the 1980s, the foreign press recorded cruel violations of the rights of the Serbian population (especially David Binder’s articles in the New York Times).

It is perfectly legitimate to ask how we can logically understand the paradox which Maliqi presents us, when without any reservations he describes the period of 1913-1999 as a continuous Serbian colonial rule over Albanians. How can this be true when all available demographic data demonstrate that over this period, there were progressively fewer Serbs in Kosovo, and a rising number of Albanians (while Serbs practically disappeared in Albania itself). Serbian neighborhoods and villages remained visibly poorer and more underdeveloped compared to Albanian areas, even though there was a marked economic boom during communism. Kosovo Albanians built new houses and buildings, and were incomparably more prosperous in Yugoslavia than ethnic Albanians in Albania at the time. During this period, Kosovo Albanians formed and ran educational institutions, and had a leading role in politics, courts, etc. This can all be confirmed simply by checking statistics from the mid-1960s to 1990 and Milošević’s coming to power.

There is a vast amount of literature from the period, both Yugoslav and foreign, which describes the strengthening of Albanian society in comparison to the Serbian population, and not the other way around — which would have been logical if it were truly a time of „colonial rule over Albanians.“

Of course, while questioning this new myth, I have no intention of justifying the cases of violence from the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, when the region was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, and especially not the oppression of the Milošević regime in the 1990s and war crimes of the 1998-1999 war. Similarly, I suppose, objective Albanians would not deny the crimes of the KLA during and after the aforementioned war, not only against Serbs but also Albanians who did not share the same political beliefs, which is what the newly formed court in The Hague is currently dealing with. After all, Milošević used force against his own people, who, after a decade of protests, removed him from power in 2000 and sent him to court to face international charges. Conversely, KLA war leaders have ruled in Kosovo for 20 years, and numerous crimes against Serbs have gone unpunished since 1999.

Another conflict of perception with reality can be found in the widespread belief that the Albanian people were subjected to historical injustice because not all Albanians were included in the territory of the modern state of Albania when it was formed in 1920s. By the same logic, wouldn’t Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Bulgarians, not to mention many other European peoples, be justified in complaining that the borders of their countries are unfairly not “ethnic” because the „historical spaces“ of these peoples often overlap? Is this just cause for saying that the solution lies in ethnic delimitations, and the creation of a Greater Albania, Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, etc, or is a more viable solution to be found in other, more democratic models, of social and political organization?

This sort of thinking is why a victim mentality accompanied by an obsession with violently „correcting historical injustices“ is an endemic disease in the Balkans and one of the main forces behind ethnic hatred. These ideas were the immediate reason for numerous atrocities in World War II, and also in the civil wars during the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

It is particularly paradoxical that nationalist ideologues among Kosovo Albanians often claim that Serbian churches are in fact Albanian Catholic places of worship, although they fail to explain why their followers burned and destroyed them so passionately, especially after 1999, to the horror of the civilized world, especially the Christian world. Visoki Dečani Monastery was shelled four times after the 1999 war, which is why it is the only religious site and UNESCO World Heritage monument on the European continent to be under the military protection of international forces. Due to the post-war violence, all four UNESCO monuments in Kosovo (the monasteries of Dečani, the Peć Patriarchate, Gračanica, and the Church of the Ljeviška Mother of God, which have been on the World Cultural Heritage List for years) have been threatened.

Although there are hundreds of preserved documents about Dečani Monastery, records written in Serbian, Turkish, English, French, and other European languages, there is absolutely no mention of the „Byzantine cultural heritage“ Maliqi mentioned, and especially nowhere to be found is the absurd claim some others have made that it is a Roman Catholic Church, although it was built with elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture by the skilled hand of the Kotor master, Friar Vita, who was hired by King Stefan of Dečani to work on his memorial church.

As a well-known Serbian Orthodox monastery, Dečani Monastery was respected by many Kosovo Albanians, especially from the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century when local Albanian protectors, known as vojvodes, lived within the Monastery and protected it from more radical Albanian clans. To say that our churches, built in the tradition of Byzantine art, are „Byzantine heritage,“ which is another way of avoiding mentioning Serbs, is logically the same as making the ridiculous claim that Gothic churches were built by Goths.

Medieval Serbian rulers were culturally inspired by Byzantine spirituality and its traditions of fresco painting, which they then gave a special local flavor in a rich blend with Western architectural styles, thus creating a cultural bridge between East and West. We have such examples not only in Kosovo but throughout Serbia.

Therefore, the contemporary historical narrative in Kosovo, which is based on an obsessive belief that the history of violence in this part of the Balkans begins with 1913 (the end of Ottoman rule in this region) or with the ten years of Slobodan Milošević’s rule, represents a crude and arbitrary improvisation, which is more an expression of a kind of collective frustration and pervasive victim mentality, rather than being a reasonable position based on historical facts, and as such cannot be a path to reconciliation and stability in the wider region.

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD

Both Serbs and Albanians, like everyone else in the Western Balkans, have two options: either to continue prolonging ethnic and religious intolerance, which will isolate this area from the world in the long run and turn it into a black hole on the European continent, or to overcome our disputes with a willingness, regardless of political circumstances (which depend so much on world powers), to treat all citizens, their heritage, languages, and customs as part of a rich cultural and historical mosaic, which should be cause for pride and cooperation, rather than a stumbling block.

The absence of a healthy vision of how to create such a society and the unwillingness to make even the smallest compromise in order to bring about the peaceful life of all citizens has dead-ended the entire region for the past 20 years.

I have actively participated in representing our Church to international and Kosovo representatives since the mid-1990s. Over time, a tacit custom has developed to refer to this area as „Kosovo“ in official documents (as per Resolution 1244 and the practice in European countries and the United States), and as „Kosova“ or „Kosovo and Metohija“ in Albanian and Serbian conventional usage and translations, respectively. The use of the Albanian term Dukagjini for what we call Metohija has never been contested — not now nor in earlier periods. It is simply a part of the history of this region, although that term denotes a larger area than Metohija does.

It is essential that, while defending and preserving our own heritage, we must not encroach on what has belonged to other communities for centuries, respecting property rights and freedoms as foundational to a democratic society. At the same time, cultural heritage transcends peoples and languages on a civilizational level, and is the treasure of the entire world.

Therefore, in educational systems, instead of constantly moving in the direction of creating new, historically-outdated myths and marginalizing other groups and everything that is different from us, we must work on developing a more inclusive stance towards cultural tradition, yet in a way that does not deny property rights or the cultural identity of religious buildings and cultural monuments.

To conclude, I would like to highlight something else that I have witnessed on a daily basis for decades, both through serving God and simply as a citizen who has lived in Kosovo for more than three decades. We should be ready to turn what has until now been a stumbling block into new bridges of cooperation and trust, and to proudly show off what is best in our traditions to the whole world. The name „Metohija“ and the SOC’s heritage certainly do not pose any danger to the Albanians who live here, to their rights, customs, and traditions, just as the Albanian culture and tradition do not pose a threat to the remaining Serbs.

The problem only lies in misperceptions and the desire to create an ethnically and culturally „cleansed“ society, which has, in fact, been the main cause of conflict from the end of the 19th century onwards.

Twenty years since the end of the Kosovo armed conflict, it is time to change this deeply misguided and inaccurate narrative, and to work harder on mutual reconciliation, a dignified preservation of the memory of all innocent victims of the conflict, resolving the fate of missing persons, and equally respecting human rights and religious freedoms for all — all with a firm commitment not to allow a renewal of conflict or the destruction of cultural heritage.

How ready we are to respond to this challenge will largely dictate the dynamics of the economic and social prosperity and development of this part of Europe.

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