Religious Symbols, War, and Peace-building

This is Christ the Savior Cathedral, which stands on the campus of the University of Pristina in Kosovo. It is odd for a church to be on this campus – the university is secular and 95% of the people of Kosovo are Muslim.

How it Came to be There

Kosovo fought a war with Serbia in 1998-1999 later declaring independence in 2008. Tensions were high during the decade before the war, Kosovans wanted greater autonomy and the Serbian controlled government resisted their demands.  In the midst of that turbulent era, the Serbian Orthodox Church started construction on a new cathedral, Christ the Savior, in the middle of the campus of the University of Pristina.  Construction began in 1995 and was never completed because of the war.  Building the church there was an affront to the Muslim, Albanian population.  Yet, it was legal.  The title to the land belongs to the Orthodox Church (indeed, they controversially own most of the land on which the University of Pristina sits).

The timing and location of this particular religious building make it presence less than irenic. Serbs, and everyone else in Kosovo, should have the right to freely express their faith and meet together for worship. Yet, as is clear from other countries, the peaceful practice of multiple religions demands sensitivity to image and intent.

And now….

The church has remained unfinished, deserted, and boarded up – an icon of the conflict and ongoing religious cleavages in Kosovo. Then this month, some Orthodox Serbs started to clean the church. Students reacted immediately, staging sit-ins and protesting the presence of the church on campus.

Religion and Reconciliation

One of the characteristics of the Serbian Orthodox faith is the way in which church spaces – interiors and architecture – educate those present about the relationship between God and human beings. The mosaics and paintings recount biblical stories and historic events; the temporal links to the spiritual through the aesthetics of space and beauty.  Worshippers have a full sensory experience in services through the paintings and icons, music and incense.  For a tradition that places such value on place in its worship, it is a pity that this space of worship has become so politicized.

As others have noted before me, there is an ambivalence to religion’s role in conflict. Religion can resolve and ameliorate conflicts or make them worse. In this case, the latter is the accurate description. The church reminds people of the dominance of Serbia over Kosovo and the dark days leading up to the war. There are few Serbs left in the city after the war who could use the cathedral as a place of worship even if it were to be completed.

Orthodox religious leaders could model the reconciling nature of Christ should they use the occasion of the recent demonstrations to build peace, rather than reinforce the existing divisions. It would be healing if Orthodox Church leaders would initiate an open and public discussion about what should be done with the unfinished cathedral, acknowledging the manner and context in which the church was built and considering alternative purposes for the building, such as museum, lecture hall, or campus gathering space.

Serbian Orthodox churches are designed to connect the temporal and spiritual. This cathedral could serve as a symbol of healing and reconciliation in a divided and politicized society, rather than a symbol of the conflict.

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