Decani Monastery, an ancient religious landmark nestled at the base of the Accursed Mountains in the Balkans, stands as a testament to Serbia’s rich spiritual heritage in Kosovo, enduring numerous conflicts throughout its existence.
As a 14th-century architectural marvel, the monastery is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and proudly displays its original frescoes. To ensure its protection, NATO-led peacekeepers maintain a constant presence, guarding the approach to the monastery with an armored vehicle mounted with heavy artillery and a sandbagged sentry post, an incongruous sight amidst the serene valley..
Within the monastery compound, the soldiers, dressed in camouflage uniforms, seamlessly blend with the twenty Eastern Orthodox monks who call it home, their black robes harmoniously mingling with the military presence. Since the uprising of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo against Belgrade from 1998 to 1999, sites associated with Serbian heritage, including the Decani Monastery, have become targets of hostility.
While the situation in Kosovo has generally calmed since the intervention of NATO in the Kosovo war, which took place over two and a half decades ago, ongoing tensions necessitate continued vigilance by the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force. According to KFOR commanders, tensions are currently at their highest level since 2004, with ethnic Albanians asserting control over municipal administrations in Serb-majority flashpoint towns in northern Kosovo, while Serbia detains three Kosovo policemen arrested in mid-June.
A Haven Amidst Turmoil
Amidst these troubles, the tranquility that reigns within the Decani Monastery seems to transport one to a distant realm, yet the resident monks are acutely aware of the historical conflicts that have threatened its existence. Father Petar, one of the monks, shared with journalists, including AFP, who visited the monastery under KFOR escort in late June, that the church has endured the tribulations of two Balkan wars, two world wars, and even the era of Communism. It is, therefore, nothing short of miraculous that the church has survived such turbulent times.
Father Petar chose to focus on the architectural marvel of the monastery, highlighting its unique fusion of Gothic, Byzantine, and Eastern influences. He noted that the church has remained remarkably unchanged throughout its 700-year history. Although the contemporary threats facing the site were not dwelled upon, it was clear that the preservation of this cultural gem remains paramount.
During the Kosovo war and its aftermath, the Decani Monastery served as a sanctuary for individuals from diverse religious backgrounds, providing solace amidst ethnic rivalries. Constructed between 1327 and 1335, the monastery was founded by Serbian King Stefan Decanski, after whom the monastery and the nearby village were named. The Serbs refer to the village as Decani, while ethnic Albanians call it Decan. Orthodox faithful from far and wide pilgrimage to worship at the altar beneath the cupola, where the revered remains of King Stefan, now canonized as Saint Stefan of Decani, are enshrined.
Within and around the monastery, KFOR soldiers fulfill their duty of safeguarding the site, displaying unwavering respect for its sanctity. As the monks carry out their rituals, the peacekeepers diligently observe their surroundings, ensuring the security of all who visit. Sergeant Manuel Cetrullo, the KFOR team leader responsible for the site, emphasized the importance of maintaining positive relationships with the diverse elements within the municipality, irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds.
The Decani Monastery stands as a testament to resilience, representing both Serbia’s rich cultural heritage and the ongoing commitment of NATO-led peacekeepers to preserve historical and religious landmarks in Kosovo.