By James Morrison
His dwindling flock is scattered and under siege. His churches and cemeteries have been vandalized. The world appears to sympathize with his persecutors, but the spiritual leader of Kosovo's Orthodox Serbs says he cannot afford the luxury of feeling sorry for himself.
"To be pessimistic is not an attribute for a man of faith," said Bishop Artemije of Kosovo and Metohija, "particularly for a bishop."
But the bleak message the black-robed, white-bearded cleric brought with him to Washington last week showed how little political progress has been made since the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that drove Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, leaving the province a de facto international protectorate until its final status is determined.
Kosovo's overwhelmingly ethnic-Albanian Muslim majority insists on independence from Serbia, while the Serbian government is equally adamant that the province remain under its control. Despite an effort by the United States and allied countries to strike a deal on Kosovo by the end of the year, desultory talks in Vienna have produced little progress.
Bishop Artemije is a frequent visitor to Washington, where he sounds the alarm over what he says are increasing attacks by Kosovo's Muslims on the minority Serbs and their churches. In a briefing at the National Press Club last week, he said Kosovo had become "a black hole of corruption and organized crime," a "rogue state" in the heart of Europe with growing ties to radical Islamic movements in the Middle East. "Sacrificing our land and our blood cannot buy protection from jihad," he warned.
In the interview with our correspondent David R. Sands, the bishop said the more than 200,000 Kosovar Serbs -- two-thirds of his flock -- have been forced to flee the province since the war because of ethnic and religious intimidation and violence. More than 150 Christian churches and monasteries have been destroyed, and the remaining Orthodox Serbs live in small, often isolated pockets surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbors.
The opposite was the case during the Kosovo war that began in 1995, when Serbian forces retaliated against attacks by rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Kosovar civilians and about 3,000 Serbian civilians died in the conflict. NATO waged a 78-day bombing campaign to drive the Serbian troops out of Kosovo and destroyed bridges, power stations, factories and other civilian targets throughout what was then Yugoslavia.
Bishop Artemije said he found "a little more understanding" from Bush administration officials in his latest visit but acknowledged the difficult diplomatic and political landscape.
"If you look at the situation with human eyes, it can seem depressing and hopeless at times," he said.
"But if you look at Kosovo with the eyes of faith, hope is never lost. There is always hope that there is still honesty in the world, a world that seems to be asleep and that we will try with all our might to wake up."