Destruction of Serbian heritage in Kosovo

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Left: Ruined medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery
Right: Icon from UNESCO World Heritage Site Our Lady of Ljeviš in Prizren damaged during 2004 unrest in Kosovo.

Serbian cultural and religious sites in Kosovo were systematically vandalized and destroyed over several historical periods, during the Ottoman rule, World War I, World War II, Yugoslav communist rule, Kosovo War and 2004 unrest.

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, 155 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed by Kosovo Albanians between June 1999 and March 2004.[1] The Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, founded by the Nemanjić dynasty, is a combined World Heritage Site consisting of four Serbian Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries. In 2006, the property was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.[2][3]

Ottoman Empire[edit]

The remains of the Novo Brdo Fortress

The Banjska Monastery founded by Serbian King Stefan Milutin was burnt down following the Ottoman invasion and the monastery was looted during the Ottoman occupation of Medieval Serbia.[4] It was damaged again during the 16th century, after which it was abandoned until a mosque was built on the ruins in the 17th century.[4] The entire complex suffered the greatest destruction after the withdrawal of the Ottoman army from the Great Turkish War.[4]

After the capture of Prizren and its surroundings in 1455 by the Ottoman Empire, the Monastery of the Holy Archangels founded by Serbian Emperor Stefan Dušan was looted and destroyed.[5] At the beginning of the 17th century, a systematic demolition was conducted on the monastery churches and it is widely considered that construction material was used to build the Sinan Pasha Mosque in the same city, but such claims have not been proven.[5][6]

At the close of the 17th century, the Ottoman Turks plundered the Visoki Dečani monastery, but made no serious damage.[7] In the first half of the 18th century the Our Lady of Ljeviš in Prizren had been converted into a mosque and adjusted to the needs of services characteristic of Islam.[7] Two monuments dedicated to the Battle of Kosovo were destroyed and removed by the Turks, including one erected by Stefan Lazarević, the Serbian Despot and son of Lazar of Serbia.[8][9]

The 16th century Church of St. Nicholas in the municipality of Lipljan was pulled down in the 19th century and construction material was sold to built Kosovo railway.[10][11] The medieval Novo Brdo Fortress and the town were heavily damaged by disintegration in 1892 when the cornerstone referred to the construction of barracks in Pristina.[12]

World War I and II[edit]

During World War I, the Visoki Dečani monastery's treasures were plundered by the Austro-Hungarian Army, which occupied Serbia between 1915 and 1918.[13]

Following the invasion of Yugoslavia (6–18 April 1941) in World War II, the largest part of Kosovo was attached to Italian occupied Albania in an enlarged "Greater Albania".[14] During the occupation, part of the Serb population was subject to expulsion, torture, destruction of private property, destruction and damaging of monasteries, churches, cultural-historical monuments and graveyards.[14]

The Visoki Dečani was targeted for destruction by the Albanian nationalist Balli Kombëtar and Italian fascist blackshirts in mid-1941. The Royal Italian Army responded by sending a group of soldiers to help protect the monastery from attack.[15] Third monuments dedicated to the Battle of Kosovo were totally destroyed in 1941.[8][9]

SFR Yugoslavia[edit]

The Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Gjakova was destroyed by the communists in 1949.[16][17] Prior to 1968, the Yugoslav state carried out the destruction of churches, the listing of church properties as state cultural heritage, the seizure of church and monastery artifacts to be displayed in state museums, as well as, the appropriation of property for state functions.[18] During 1968 and 1981 protests, Serbian Orthodox religious sites were the target of vandalism, while vandalism continued during the 1980s.[19][20] There were attempts to devastate Devič, damage Visoki Dečani and desecrate Gračanica and the Hermitage of St. Peter of Koriša.[10] In March 1981, the Patriarchal Monastery of Peć was set on fire, which destroyed a 2,000-square meter residential section along with valuable furniture, rare liturgical books and some of the monastery's treasury.[21][22]

Kosovo War and aftermath[edit]

NATO bombing in March–June 1999 resulted in the damaging of the Gračanica Monastery, Patriarchal Monastery of Peć complex of four churches, as well as the Visoki Dečani and wall paintings of the Hermitage of St. Peter of Koriša, among the more notable churches.[23][7] No Serbian Orthodox churches or monasteries were damaged or destroyed by the KLA during the war.[24] However, following the end of hostilities in June 1999, dozens of Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged in revenge attacks.[24] In the aftermath of war, KLA fighters were accused of vandalizing Devič monastery and terrorizing the staff. KFOR troops said KLA rebels vandalized centuries-old murals and paintings in the chapel and stole two cars and all the monastery's food.[25][26] Karima Bennoune, United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, referred to the many reports of widespread attacks against churches committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army.[27] In 2014, John Clint Williamson announced EU Special Investigative Task Force's investigative findings and he indicated that a certain element of the KLA following the conclusion of the war (June 1999) intentionally targeted minority populations with acts of persecution that also included desecration and destruction of churches and other religious sites.[28] Fabio Maniscalco, an Italian archaeologist, specialist about the protection of cultural property, described that KLA members seized icons and liturgical ornaments as they ransacked and that they proceeded to destroy Christian Orthodox churches and monasteries with mortar bombs after the arrival of KFOR.[29]

Within post-conflict Kosovo Albanian society, calls for retaliation for previous violence done by forces of the Slobodan Milošević regime during the war circulated through public culture.[24] The destruction of Serbian architectural heritage was interpreted by Albanians within that post-conflict context as architecture becoming a surrogate for forces held responsible committing violence during the war needing to be avenged, in particular the Milošević government and its army.[24] Such fabrication of interpreting architecture as unavenged violence resulted in the mediation of an idea present at the time that destruction of churches and monasteries entailed not only revenge for violence during the 1998—99 war; but also for a chain of real or imagined violent actions going far back as the medieval building of churches upon "crypto-Albanian" religious sites.[24]

Church of Holy Trinity in Petrič village

Widespread attacks against Serbian religious sites commenced following the conflict and the return of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees to their homes.[30] Between the arrival of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) in June 1999 and the 2004 unrest in Kosovo, more than 140 holy sites were destroyed, about half of the historical ones from the 14th and 15th centuries and about half of the recently made ones.[31][1][32] Serbenco Eduard explained that the destruction of the opponent's cultural property and cultural genocides took place in the Yugoslav wars, and that religious buildings were targeted due to the nature of the conflict.[32] Destruction was carried out in a systematic manner.[33][34] András Riedlmayer, Andrew Herscher and Tonka Kostadinova described the destruction of Serbian architectural heritage as revenge attacks.[30][33] These discourses of viewing Serbian historical architecture as a surrogates of violence within Kosovo Albanian society had the effect of justifying destruction as an endless process, instead of working toward a politics of justice.[35] Due to vandalization, the need arose for the armed force of the UN to protect locations containing Serbian religious heritage in Kosovo.[36] On the other hand, foreign correspondent Robert Fisk criticized describing the destruction as revenge attacks.[37] He explained that the destruction actions were planned and described them as “vandalism with a mission”.[37]

List of monuments damaged or destroyed in 1999[edit]

List of religious buildings damaged or destroyed in 1999[edit]

2004 unrest[edit]

Postwar, Albanian Kosovan media, supportive of and controlled by Albanian resistance groups, induced a climate of fear among local journalists toward preventing balanced coverage of violence perpetrated by both sides.[63] It generated a nationalist media campaign that drove and coordinated successive attacks against locations that contained Serbian heritage.[63]

In an urgent appeal,[64] issued on 18 March by the extraordinary session of the Expanded Convocation of the Holy Synod of Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), it was reported that a number of Serbian churches and shrines in Kosovo had been damaged or destroyed by rioters. At least 30 sites were completely destroyed, more or less destroyed, or further destroyed (sites that had been previously destroyed).[31] Apart from the churches and monasteries, tens of support buildings (such as parish buildings, economical buildings and residences), bringing the number close to 100 buildings of the SPC destroyed.[31] All churches and objects of the SPC in Prizren were destroyed.[31] The list includes several UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The violence quickly spread to other parts of Kosovo, with Kosovo Serb communities and religious and cultural symbols attacked by crowds of Albanians.[65] Some of these locations were ostensibly under the protection of KFOR at the time. During the riots and violence, eight Kosovo Serbians were killed. Among damaged property was the targeted cultural and architectural heritage of the Serb people, and as a result 35 churches, including 18 monuments of culture, were demolished, burnt or severely damaged.[66] [65]

List of religious buildings damaged or destroyed in 2004[edit]

Site(s) Location History Damage
Our Lady of Ljeviš (Bogorodica Ljeviška) Prizren 14th c. World Heritage Site Set on fire from the inside, 12th–14th c. frescos seriously damaged, altar area desecrated, holy table broken[31]
Church of the Holy Saviour Prizren 14th c. Set on fire[31]
Cathedral of Saint George Prizren Built in 1856 Set on fire and mined[31]
Church of St. Nicholas (Tutić's Church) Prizren 14th c. Set on fire from the inside[31]
Church of St. George (Runović's Church) Prizren 16th c. Set on fire from the inside[31]
Church of St. Kyriaki (Crkva sv. Nedelje) Potkaljaja neighbourhood, Prizren 14th c. Burnt[31]
Church of St. Panteleimon Potkaljaja 14th c. Burnt[31]
Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian Potkaljaja 14th c. Burnt[31]
Church of St. Kyriaki (Crkva sv. Nedelje) Živinjane near Prizren - Mined, completely destroyed by explosion[31]
Monastery of the Holy Archangels Prizren 14th c. founded by Stefan Dušan Robbed and burnt, in the presence of German soldiers who failed to protect it[31]
Serbian Orthodox Seminary of Prizren and the Bishop's Court Prizren Established in 1872 Set on fire[31] and people attacked on 17 March.[67]
Church of St. Elijah Podujevo built in 1929 destroyed and desecrated, coffins from the nearby Serbian cemetery were dug up, and bones of the dead were scattered away.[68]


Devič Monastery reconstruction

The Reconstruction Implementation Commission (RIC) for Serbian Orthodox religious sites in Kosovo is an EU-funded project to promote the reconstruction of cultural heritage.[69] It has 35 sites under its responsibility.[70] The project of the revitalization of the Novo Brdo fortress was financed by the European Union and implemented by UNESCO and UNMIK.[71]

See also[edit]


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