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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 31 Oct 12

Kosovo Mulls Fate of Milosevic-era Cathedral

The outlook is unclear for the unfinished Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of the Christ the Saviour in Prishtina, a relic of the turbulent 1990s.

Donjeta Demolli
BIRN Pristina
The Orthodox Temple of Christ the Saviour in Pristina

In 1995, University of Prishtina students woke up to find building work going on next to the main library. But it wasn’t a new faculty, dormitory or even a new library.

Orders had arrived from Belgrade that Prishtina was to get a new Serbian Orthodox cathedral.

Albanians saw this an illegal invasion of university property and as yet another move by Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalist government in Serbia to marginalize them.

“The church was not based … on any need for spiritual devotion as much as on a need for physical and institutional aggression,” Shemsi Krasniqi, a sociology lecturer at the University, recalls.

The Cathedral of the Christ the Saviour was never finished, let alone used, by the time that Serbia lost control of Kosovo in the 1999 war.

In the aftermath of the war the church was bombed by unknown attackers and put under the protection of NATO peacekeepers for some years.

Now it remains one of the most prominent buildings in the capital of Kosovo, a country whose population is overwhelmingly Albanian and Muslim and where the Serbs comprise only a few per cent.

But as construction begins on a new big mosque for the city, and as work on a nearby Catholic Cathedral nears completion, interest in the fate of the unfinished Orthodox cathedral has renewed.

Whether it should be demolished, completed, or even converted into something else, like a museum, remains a moot point.

Question of ownership:

The Municipality of Prishtina views the space as “property and responsibility of the University of Prishtina” that has the power to issue a license to build there, Asdren Osaj, an adviser to Mayor Isa Mustafa, says. 

However, the Serbian Orthodox Church maintains that the unfinished building is its own property, citing permits and documentation secured in the early 1990s.

“Our wish is that this church becomes an adornment for all citizens, no matter what their national or religious origin is,” Archimandrite Sava Janjic, of the Visoki Decani monastery, says.

The Cathedral would be fitting, standing near the mosque and Catholic cathedral, he adds.

Once finished, the church “will be one of the most magnificent buildings in Prishtina,” Archimandrite Sava continues.

“Architecturally it is a very interesting mixture of traditional and modern architecture, that shows that one must respect tradition, but also look into the future.”

The Serbian Church plans to finish the cathedral as soon as it has the funding to do so, the Archimandrite notes. But it’s unclear when that may happen.

Symbol of Serbian rule:

But most Albanians don't want any more reminders of the era when they were ruled by Serbia.

Architect Sali Shoshi, of Cultural Heritage without Borders, says the church serves as a reminder for Albanians of a dark period when “the [Serbian] state used urban planning for political purposes, to express its domination of the population through religious objects.

“The church is evidence of the history of the 1990s. That evidence is valuable, but as an object it doesn’t have any value,” he says.

“It doesn’t have any architectural values and is not among [listed] cultural heritage objects since it is not an old building,” he continues. Shoshi says the church should be demolished or given another function.

The cathedral is not indeed on the Kosovo government’s list of protected sites, which is maintained by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.

But Shkelzen Dragaj, an advisor to the minister, said the ministry is not competent to decide the church’s fate. «We are of the view that it is better for the building to be functional than to collapse,” he says.

The University of Prishtina, meanwhile, has no immediate plans to do anything with it the site. But that could change as part of a larger effort to improve the university's infrastructure, says Ardian Kastrati, an advisor to the rector.

Archimandrite Sava bristles at the possibility of the cathedral’s destruction.

“The idea that in the 21st century someone should destroy a Christian temple in the centre of the city is absurd,”  he says.

“In our Church, we deeply believe that it is not the will of the majority of Albanians in Kosovo, because nobody from the Government of Kosovo has supported this, nor has the new rector of the university,” he adds.

Krasniqi, the sociologist, says the best option would be to reach an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church and find a more suitable location for the cathedral.

He believes that tearing it down now would be a mistake. “Revenge … is something that would damage the credibility of the [Kosovo] state more than the building,” he warns.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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