US evangelists "join campaign to keep Kosovo within Serbia"

Published on October 5, 2006, Financial Times

Category: Islamic Terror in Kosovo

By Guy Dinmore in Washington

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, outspoken and influential televangelists in the US, are joining forces with Serbia's Christian Orthodox church to campaign against independence for the mainly Muslim province of Kosovo, according to the spiritual leader of the Serb minority there.

Bishop Artemije, the most senior Orthodox cleric in Kosovo, said the two Christian broadcasters had promised to alert their followers and exert their influence.

"They point out that they have friends at the highest level of government and will urge them to help us so that Kosovo remains in the borders of Serbia," he said.

Diplomats in Washington say that whipping up Christian fervour in the US reflects the increasingly vitriolic and intolerant debate within Kosovo that occasionally spills over into violence.

Efforts on both sides are intensifying as the ethnic Albanian majority - overwhelmingly secular but with a majority tracing Muslim roots - lobbies hard for full independence.

Martti Ahtisaari, the United Nations mediator, is due to present his recommendations on final status by the end of the year. Kosovo has been a ward of the international community since 1999, when Nato bombed Serbia and occupied the province to stop further ethnic cleansing of the ethnic Albanians.

In an interview with the FT during his third visit to the US this year, Bishop Artemije set out the argument shaping the Serb case - that independence would provide a base for an "extremist Islamic jihad" and endanger the Balkans, Europe and the US.

Followers of the puritanical Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam and al-Qaeda jihadists would be drawn there, he said. Already the province, under UN rule, was the "black hole" of Europe, run by criminal gangs trading in people, guns and drugs, while murderers and desecrators of churches and cemeteries were trying to "eradicate" the Christian community.

"It is unbelievable to see the US on one side declaring war on terror around the world and on the other side tolerating it in Kosovo," he said.

Mr Falwell, a Baptist minister and Moral Majority founder, and Mr Robertson, the Christian broadcaster, have courted controversy in portraying what they see as the threat to the western world emanating from the nature of Islam.

In 2002 Mr Falwell provoked outrage among Muslims by calling the prophet Mohammed a "terrorist". His comments led to deaths among rioters in the Indian city of Mumbai and he later apologised.

Mr Robertson is on record as saying that Islam "is anything but peaceful", subjecting unbelievers to forced conversion or death. "It's just that simple," he said. Neither responded to FT queries about their reported offers of help to the Serbs.

While earlier this year it was commonly believed that the US backed full independence for Kosovo, analysts and diplomats believe there has been a recent shift towards a form of "conditional" independence that falls short of full sovereignty.

Asked if he felt he was making progress in his lobbying, Bishop Artemije answered: "We are still sowing the seeds and we have to wait for the final gathering of the crop." He also said that since July he had felt "a different breeze" crossing the Atlantic. "All of this shows we are following the right path," he said, urging the international community to let negotiations continue beyond this year. He endorsed Belgrade's call for substantial autonomy for Kosovo.

Bishop Artemije cited an aide to Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, as saying he believed Kosovo would get "some form of independence".

Diplomats said Boris Tadic, Serbian president, made a strong impression last month on Mr Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state.

He projected Serbia as an ally in the "war on terror" while warning that independence for Kosovo could hand power at the next elections - probably in December - to the anti-western Radicals and Socialists.

Serbia has a growing military relationship with the US and is to send a small contingent of medics to Afghanistan and possibly personnel to Lebanon. Analysts say these are remarkable developments for an army still going through reforms since the atrocities committed against ethnic Albanian Muslims in the late 1990s.

Independent academic experts on Kosovo are highly sceptical of the notion that a new state would provide Islamist extremists with a foothold on the edge of Europe.

But they do recognise the danger of Kosovo becoming a weak state reliant on international aid and prone to exploitation by criminal gangs involved in drugs and human trafficking.

Anna Di Lellio, former adviser to Agim Ceku, the Kosovo Albanian prime minister, warned that a partially independent Kosovo could come to resemble the West Bank - with all the attendant political violence.

Stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is eager to draw down its 1,700 troops and police stationed inKosovo.

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