Building bridges – Cultural heritage matters

OSCE/Edon Muhaxheri

The Serbian Orthodox Monastery Visoki Dečani, with its medieval architecture from the first half of the 14th century and a vivid nature, attracts visitors from all over the region.

The Monastery is located in the municipality of Deçan/Dečane, in western Kosovo. Following the end of the 1999 conflict, the relations between the municipality and Visoki Dečani Monastery were difficult, often burdened with conflicting property claims, protests and general mistrust.

However, despite difficulties the situation has started to improve. Recent steps, supported by the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, indicate that relations could be beginning to change and the Monastery has started to be seen as advantageous to the further development of the municipality.

“Improving relations and helping a dialogue between religious communities and local institutions is a way to strengthen tolerance and co-existence of different groups living in Kosovo,” said the Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Ambassador Jean-Claude Schlumberger. “This is a driving force behind the Mission’s efforts to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation.”

Culture matters

Some 650 students from different communities have visited various cultural and religious heritage sites all over Kosovo since 2014. Young people had a chance to learn about each other, the cultural heritage they share, as well as break the prejudices that sometimes do exist.

“The OSCE places great importance on supporting local institutions in promoting and protecting cultural and religious heritage,” said Schlumberger. ”In 2014 we organized a series of workshops for more than 160 municipal inspectors on their obligations and responsibilities in the protection of cultural and religious heritage and the special protective zones around these sites.”

The Mission also organized capacity building events for representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport on the rights and obligations deriving from the Law on Special Protection Zones.

The Implementation and Monitoring Council

The Mission is a member of the Implementation and Monitoring Council (IMC), a high-level mechanism bringing together representatives of the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport and the Serbian Orthodox Church to address issues affecting the special protective zones around Serbian religious and cultural sites. The IMC is co-chaired by the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning and the European Union Special Represenative.

“The protection and promotion of cultural and religious heritage requires substantive efforts from both the responsible institutions and society as a whole to see positive change happen,” said Schlumberger.

OSCE/Edon Muhaxheri
OSCE/Edon Muhaxheri

Breaking prejudice

Early in November 2014, the Mission helped organize the first visit of a group of Kosovo Albanian pupils from Deçan/Dečane municipality to the Visoki Dečani Monastery.

The municipal leadership and the Monastery’s brotherhood both actively supported the OSCE initiative. The reactions of the young participants were positive.

A Kosovo Albanian pupil aged 11, from Deçan/Dečane town, said he did not know much about the Monastery earlier but that he very much liked the fact he could visit the place, ask different questions and see frescoes on the walls. “It is important to preserve cultural heritage and pass it from generation to generation,” he said. “It is important for all of us.”

Father Petar from the Monastery, who welcomed the young visitors and their teachers, said that monks “are always pleased to receive visitors, especially the young ones,” and that “such visits always go well.” “Many children from Dečane municipality neither visited the Monastery nor had any contact with the Monastery,” said Father Petar.

Dialogue as the key to trustful relations

Mayor Rasim Selmanaj took office in Deçan/Dečane municipality in 2013. While the economic situation in the municipality is challenging, he remains committed to help build better links to the Visoki Dečani Monastery.

“Relations with the Monastery are relatively good but we need to further improve them,” said Selmanaj.  “I had a few meetings with the Abbot of Visoki Dečani Monastery and we agreed that there are still many challenges ahead us.”

But sometimes common ground can be found as well. Late in 2014, both the municipality and the Monastery supported reconstruction of a road leading to the mineral water spring near by the Monastery.

Father Petar thinks that the regular meetings with the municipality could make a change. “Few months ago, at the invitation of the municipality, I started attending meetings of the municipal community safety council as a representative of the Serbian Orthodox Community. After two such meetings I realized that many problems between the municipality and the Monastery are simple results of misunderstandings or lack of knowledge,” said Father Petar. He also underlined the potential of the Monastery “to contribute to the local economy and tourism in the area.”

OSCE support continues

Mayor Selmanaj and Father Petar see an important role for the OSCE in facilitating dialogue. “We welcome any opportunity of the OSCE’s involvement in improving the relations and we do appreciate the OSCE’s role in the past,” said Selmanaj.

Father Petar in particular pointed out the role of the OSCE in “mediating and helping improve contacts and relations, in particular with young people, the local population and the municipality.”

Ambassador Schlumberger agreed with their views: “Joint efforts to build up tolerance and work on reconciliation are the only way forward,” he concluded.

Source: OSCE
Photo: OSCE/Edon Muhaxheri