World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Yugoslavia's double tragedy

16 April 1999

Ecumenical delegation Report, Novi Sad, Belgrade, 16-18 April 1999.


A joint delegation of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) visited the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), 16-18 April 1999.

The aim of the visit was to meet with the leaders of member churches in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and to discuss with them the causes and consequences of the current crisis in Kosovo, and of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia. The delegation visited member churches in the Yugoslav cities of Novi Sad and Belgrade, but was unable to enter the province of Kosovo itself due to restrictions on movement resulting from the intensive conflict situation there. Visits to member churches in Albania and other countries in the region are also being planned.

The visit was held soon after the start of the bombing campaign against targets throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The ecumenical delegation was organized in the context of widespread international concern provoked by the massive and tragic exodus of over half a million Kosovar Albanians into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia, and the accounts and allegations of serious human rights violations, forced deportation, and arbitrary executions perpetrated in the province of Kosovo, detailed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others.

The World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and the Lutheran World Federation have repeatedly appealed for a negotiated and peaceful resolution to the conflict situation in the region of Kosovo, and have consistently opposed any violence or use of military force by the involved parties. The relevant statements and press releases have been made public.
The purpose of this report is to communicate the results of the visit and the discussions with the Yugoslav church leaders, and to summarize the preliminary findings of the delegation.

The objectives of the visit were:

  • to be present and manifest solidarity with member churches in Yugoslavia at a critical time;
  • to listen to the churches and receive information about their situation.
  • to discuss the conflict in Kosovo, and the massive exodus of the Albanian Kosovars and its causes;
  • to discuss possible ecumenical initiatives in the country and region, including further humanitarian assistance, with the churches.

Delegation members were:

Rev. Dr Keith Clements, General Secretary, CEC
Mr Alexander Belopopsky, Europe Secretary, WCC
Rev. Dr Olli-Pekka Lassila, Europe Secretary, LWF

Meeting with Protestant Church Leaders (Novi Sad)

The delegation met with the leaders of the minority Protestant churches (Reformed, Lutheran and Methodist) in Novi Sad (Vojvodina) in northern Serbia. The region is home to important ethnic Hungarian and Slovak minorities. The group's arrival coincided with the first night that Novi Sad had not been targeted since the start of the NATO bombing. The church leaders welcomed the solidarity and understanding of the broader Christian family manifested by the visit, and especially valued the letters and Easter peace appeal of the international church bodies.

There are a number of responses of the church communities in Yugoslavia to the crisis in Kosovo, and especially to the NATO intervention and its consequences, including statements and joint prayers. The church leadership is generally well-informed about the refugee crisis and deportation in Kosovo, and its dramatic consequences on the civilian population and the neighbouring countries. All church leaders forcefully condemn any violence, intimidation, ethnic cleansing and forced displacement of the civilian population in Kosovo, and support calls for a negotiated and peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, there are different perceptions about the immediate causes of the violence and refugee crisis in Kosovo. For most of the churches, the role of the Kosovar Albanian armed separatist forces is an important factor in the radicalization of the situation in the region, together with the violent response of Yugoslav and Serbian military and paramilitary forces, and the intensive NATO bombardment is perceived as having aggravated the exodus of people from the region.

The conflict situation and the NATO intervention were the main areas of discussion. Novi Sad has been hit by aerial strikes every night for three weeks, and several sites in the suburbs and the central bridges in the city have been destroyed. The local churches unanimously condemn the NATO attack which is perceived as an unjust and inhuman response to a complex sequence of events which have led to the crisis around Kosovo, and which is understood by them as an illegal and immoral attack on a sovereign State. The church leaders emphasize that the bombing campaign has undermined democracy, has strengthened the regime's control of the country, and has radicalized the extremist forces in Yugoslavia and among ethnic Albanians.

Bishop Istvan, head of the Reformed Church in Yugoslavia, is certain that war in Kosovo could have been avoided if the Western powers had not interfered and created "impossible expectations". According to the Lutheran church leader Bishop Valent "the humanitarian tragedy facing the Albanians has been exacerbated by NATO and KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) actions". The crisis in Kosovo is the result of the dismantling of the delicate Yugoslav balance of nationalities constructed by Tito, and of extremist Kosovar Albanians who were encouraged by Western powers to seek secession from Yugoslavia, it was stated by the church representatives. Methodist Superintendent Hovan adds that now "the whole country is in crisis" and he expresses his gratitude for the assistance and support of the ecumenical family for all victims of the conflict.

The ethnic minorities in the province of Vojvodina (mainly Hungarians and Slovaks) "are not responsible for the crisis in Kosovo", explained Bishop Valent, "but the consequences on the local situation here are direct and important". Young men are facing mobilization, the economic impact is serious, and there are isolated examples of a xenophobic attitude towards minority groups, which had not existed prior to the NATO raids. The introduction of a state of war in Yugoslavia also means that churches must seek permission to organize any non-worship gathering.

The profound sense of injustice and outrage engendered in the traditionally multi-ethnic and multi-cultural region is articulated by a local university professor, Dr Svenka Savic, whose text is being circulated abroad by the churches. "Bridges are constructions (...) of the spirit, which join people and objects (...) The bombardment of the bridge in Novi Sad symbolizes division between nations, parts of the world, the division within ourselves. The bombardments of the bridge in Novi Sad is only one of a series of bombardments in our (former) country (...) and today we stand in front of our destroyed bridge, each of us recalls how we lived with it, and we all cry. We cry because we hate those who took it away from us. Destroying the bridge in Novi Sad as a strategic point, they have moved the emotional point of our balance, and now we are limping in search of support."

Meeting with the Roman Catholic Church (Belgrade)

The delegation was received by Archbishop Perko, head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Belgrade. The Archbishop received the delegation in the same dining room where Serbia was presented with an ultimatum by the Western Powers which led to the First World War. The Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See through the Papal Nuncio in Yugoslavia have vigorously intervened to seek to end the international bombardment of Serbia as a response to the Kosovo crisis, and are actively promoting diplomatic solutions. According to Archbishop Perko, the churches are all united against the Nato bombing, and must never cease struggling for dialogue and negotiation between the warring parties in Kosovo. The inevitable result of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia is a strong and popular Serbian reaction to the West, he says. "We are for dialogue, but the tragedy is that dialogue is now impossible (..) there seems to be no mutually acceptable understanding of what is possible as a solution to the conflict". The Archbishop remains pessimistic about the immediate future. He thinks the culmination of events around Kosovo is a "tragedy and disaster" for the Serbian people, which he compares to the plight of the Jews during the time of the Prophet Jeremiah. He is supportive of the "moral duty" of European churches to stop the Nato bombing, which can only worsen the situation, and to contribute to dialogue and peaceful solutions, but he fears that this is a "cry in the wilderness".

Meeting with the Serbian Orthodox Church (Belgrade)

The delegation was received by the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pavle, and separately, by two diocesan Bishops, Irinej of Backa and Bishop Ignatije of Branicevo. The visit was warmly welcomed as a "visible manifestation of concern and solidarity for the churches in Yugoslavia and the cause of peace" said Patriarch Pavle. The Patriarch emphasized that the visit came at a time of great difficulty and misfortune for both Serbs and Albanians. The Patriarch repeated his condemnation of war and violence and he repeated his public appeals for the ending of all military actions by all forces, to allow for the guaranteed return of all civilians to their homes, and a solution which allows for peaceful coexistence. "From the very beginning of this situation I have appealed to our State authorities, military forces and civilian leaders to do everything in their power to prevent an escalation of the conflict", he stated. "All war is evil" he says, "but civil war is doubly evil as it provokes neighbour to fight neighbour".

The Patriarch reminded the delegation that he lived for 34 years in Kosovo, and knows at first hand the situation there. He expressed his profound concern at the human suffering and tragic destruction taking place in the province. He thinks it is important to understand the causes and reasons for the current situation. In his view, the Yugoslav State is faced with an impossible position, as armed separatists seek independence from the rest of Yugoslavia. The Nato intervention is perceived as an attack by Western powers on the sovereignty and freedom of the country, and does nothing to promote a negotiated solution. What does the Gospel tell us when our integrity and freedom is attacked? he asks. The Church is against war, but a State has the right to defend its integrity. But the Gospel also says that we must answer before God for our actions and lives, and "all our work in this crisis must be to serve justice, truth and love", he emphasized.

The Serbian Church leader welcomes the actions and statements of the international church organizations, and especially of the Roman Catholic Church, to promote a peaceful solution to the conflict. The Serbian Orthodox Church is working directly to promote alternative solutions, and has been consistently critical of the actions of the Yugoslav political leadership in Kosovo, and sent a delegation to present its views at the Rambouillet peace conferences, without success. Specific annexes were drafted by the church as additions to the Rambouillet draft proposals, which propose broad autonomy and secure rights of all minorities within Kosovo. A memorandum proposing urgent alternative solutions to the policy of the Yugoslav government was presented to Madeleine Albright in person by Bishop Artemije of Raska-Prizren. The Patriarch and Holy Synod support the statements and actions of the Orthodox Bishop in Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, for a cantonisation of the province within a democratic and federal Yugoslavia, with guarantees for all ethnic and national groups. These positions have been articulated for over two years, and have provoked strong criticism of the Orthodox Church from the Yugoslav political leadership. The Patriarch expressed his interest in the proposals that European churches together take a new initiative to call for a cessation of hostilities, an end to Nato bombing and the establishment of a humanitarian corridor into Kosovo in favour of those displaced and suffering from the fighting.

In conversation with Bishop Irinej, the Serbian Orthodox Bishop in Novi Sad, it was emphasized that the NATO bombing has aggravated the situation and cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis. The psychological approach of NATO has been disastrous, as it has dramatically reduced any possibility of a political solution. The delegation raised the issue of the reported atrocities, forced deportation and ethnic cleansing by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. The church leaders expressed grief at the human suffering in the province, but accused the separatist forces and the Nato intensive bombing as having encouraged and even directly provoked the massive exodus of people. "We weep for the plight of the refugees from Kosovo" he says, and the church will not look at who is Albanian and who is Serb. However, he remains sceptical about the humanitarian motives of the NATO operation. "Almost no help was given to Yugoslavia from outside or even by our State authorities to assist the 700,000 refugees who were forced to leave homes in Croatia and Bosnia", he said. Yugoslavia had many problems and was a far from perfect democracy, but it was still the most open country in the communist system, he emphasized. "The difficulties are a thousand times greater after the NATO intervention. Western policy towards Yugoslavia has now produced the greatest anti-Western factor in Europe".

According to the Bishop, the Serbian Orthodox Church has struggled to propose alternatives solutions for the Kosovo crisis, but the NATO intervention has now actually created new conflicts, with tensions emerging even in his region of Vojvodina. He thinks that Yugoslavia should give full autonomy to the Kosovar Albanians within the existing international borders, with the rights of the other minorities in Kosovo being guaranteed by an international peace-keeping force "without NATO countries", who cannot offer a neutral role after the intervention. The Bishop cannot believe that the disastrous reactions to the Nato bombing were not analyzed and predicted by Western policy makers, and he therefore raises the question about the broader geopolitical interests of the intervention in the region. The Bishop emphasized that the church "does not speak in the spirit of government but rather in the spirit of the Gospel". "We too are Europeans," he said, and he appealed for European churches to raise awareness about the Yugoslav churches' situation and positions, and about the human impact of the bombing and the displacement in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The Humanitarian Situation in Yugoslavia

During conversations with church representatives, the critical social, humanitarian and political situation provoked by the bombing, and the continued violence and military action in Kosovo, were discussed. The full scale of the humanitarian impact remains difficult to measure, and is evolving daily. The massive displacement of people in Kosovo, and the arrival of over half a million Kosovar Albanian refugees in neighbouring Albania and in FYR Macedonia, has created a massive humanitarian disaster and suffering. At the time of the visit, the precise situation within Kosovo, and the full extent of the human and material catastrophe, were not known. The international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations agencies estimate that some hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced within the province itself, with limited access to food and shelter.

Many major cities in Yugoslavia have been heavily affected by the Nato bombing of bridges, energy supplies and military targets. The most intensive bombing has been in Kosovo itself, and in the Southern cities of Yugoslavia. There have been civilian deaths directly from bombing, although the authorities are reluctant to release any figures. Some people displaced by the fighting in Kosovo, including Albanians, Serbs and others, are making their way as far North as Vojvodina and Novi Sad, although many prefer to avoid the big agglomerations. Over 100,000 displaced people are present in Montenegro, according to the Yugoslav Red Cross. The existing refugee populations from the fighting and forced movements of population in Bosnia and Croatia are also seriously affected. According to UNHCR figures there are over 760,000, mainly Serb, refugees still in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, many of whom are dependent on international aid. Pharmaceuticals and imported necessities (e.g. baby food and milk) are already in limited supply. The heating, water supply and sanitation systems have been seriously damaged in many cities. The Red Cross is increasing stocks of blood, and is developing first aid training. Hospitals are being emptied of non-emergency cases, and in some areas water and heating supplies are disrupted. The psychological and trauma impact on the civilian population is becoming apparent, and it appears that the suicide rate is rising especially among vulnerable groups such as the elderly.

Another direct impact of the conflict has been the potential mobilization of men for the army. Men of conscript age are not allowed to leave the country. Some examples of desertion and draft-dodging are reported especially among the non-Serb minority communities, which are reluctant to serve in Kosovo. Conscientious objectors, especially among Jehovah's witnesses and Nazarenes, are subject to punishment.

However, it is the long-term impact which is most feared according to Karoly Beres, the leader of the Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization based in Novi Sad. "The bombing of factories, fuel depots, and civilian transport routes, following ten years of international sanctions, is rapidly creating an economic disaster" he says. Of deeper concern is the slow breakdown of normal life that is being engendered, as schooling and medical services are halted. "It seems immoral for us to ask for aid when the Kosovars are suffering so much" he stresses, "but the rising waves of hatred [caused by Nato bombing] are taking effect and the consequences frighten us". The EHS leader expressed his recognition and gratitude for the support given by Western church agencies for the work of the organization. According to Beres, the churches can have an important role in overcoming conflict, if they can avoid the mistakes of politicians and look to the future and not only refer to the past. "our great task as churches is to find ways for all nations to live together as part of a broader European life". But he admits that the continued crisis in Yugoslavia is making this expectation a distant dream.

Findings and Conclusions

The joint ecumenical visit was welcomed by the churches as a manifestation of real concern and solidarity, and was organized at a critical and tense time in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The delegation recognized the double tragedy experienced by people in Yugoslavia: the devastating civil war and forced movement of populations in the region of Kosovo, and the subsequent massive impact of the Nato bombardment throughout Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav church leaders condemn any violence, intimidation, ethnic cleansing and forced displacement of the civilian population in the province of Kosovo.
The Serbian Orthodox Church explicitly appeals for the guaranteed right of return of all people displaced from their homes by the fighting.

There are differences of perception about the immediate causes of the massive exodus of refugees, as some churches see the NATO bombing and the armed confrontation within Kosovo as important causes.

All churches emphasize the need for any solution to the conflict to respect the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the multi-ethnic character of the province, with protected rights for all ethnic and religious groups.

There is unanimity of all the churches, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic, in opposing the NATO bombing. According to the churches, the NATO intervention, far from changing Yugoslav policy, has led to an escalation of the crisis. The intervention is perceived as an unjust attack on a sovereign country and on a civilian population, despite the insistence of NATO that it is directed against the Yugoslav leadership and military capability in Kosovo.

The Nato intervention is seen as having effectively silenced any political and democratic opposition in the country, and has largely paralyzed the emerging civil society, as the country rallies itself against perceived foreign aggression. The Yugoslav authorities have closed down or restricted the previously thriving independent media, especially in Serbia. According to Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic, quoted at the time of the visit in the Western media, the NATO intervention has actually strengthened Milosevic, and will lead to social unrest in Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, 17 leading peace organizations and independent NGOs have appealed for an end to the bombing, and reports speak of increased intimidation and fear among civil society activists since the start of the bombing. Paradoxically, some of the areas most affected by bombing were also centres of support for opposition political parties, while Kosovo was a strong centre of support for Milosevic due to the abstention of the Kosovar Albanians in elections. The churches themselves do not articulate any support for the leadership or policy of the current Yugoslav regime.

The Nato military intervention risks further destabilising the fragile ethnic and political balance within Yugoslavia, and threatens to reopen differences and conflicts among countries in the region.

The overall humanitarian impact of the bombing in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is much wider and deeper than reported internationally. "Collateral damage" includes the frequent, usually indirect, damage of hospitals, schools and residential areas, and the economic, psychological and trauma impacts are very significant. In many regions, the disruption of transport routes is isolating vulnerable communities. For example, an important bridge linking Serbia and Croatia has been destroyed, effectively isolating the last remaining Serbs in the area around Vukovar. The economic impact is devastating, and weakens the distribution of water, energy and food supplies in some parts of the country. The Yugoslav Red Cross has released detailed information on the situation, and is actively developing its disaster preparedness measures. Some groups in Yugoslavia have protested the environmental impact of the NATO bombing of oil and chemical installations, especially in the Danube, and the alleged use by NATO of depleted uranium ammunition and indiscriminate anti-personnel bombs in Kosovo itself.

The role of media and the transmission of information has a dominant role in shaping perceptions. The Yugoslav State media concentrate on the impact of the Nato bombing on civilians in other parts of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavs who have access to satellite television, foreign radio and the internet are aware of the mass deportation, ethnic cleansing and tragic plight of refugees forced to leave Kosovo. The Western media, with limited access to regions in Kosovo, gives little account of the armed conflict in the province, and of the complexity of its causes. Very little account is given anywhere of the alternative and moderate positions of the Yugoslav democratic movement and of the churches. The deliberate influencing of media by all parties, and the new power of direct information through the internet, have created a "live" war, in which the image and perception at times seem to override the content and direction of actions on all sides.


The international ecumenical organizations should further assist the churches in Yugoslavia to articulate and communicate their experience and understanding of the current crisis.

The ecumenical community should encourage an international prayer for peace, for example each Wednesday afternoon, in solidarity with churches in Novi Sad. An international prayer for peace in Yugoslavia is also being proposed by Yugoslav churches for 16 May.

The international church organizations should encourage the more systematic sharing of information with member churches in FRY, especially about the conflict and refugee crisis in Kosovo, and the international church reactions.

The ecumenical response to the humanitarian needs of all victims, displaced people and refugees must be continued and strengthened through ACT-Action by Churches Together. Disaster preparedness is a priority, and a coordination meeting could be arranged with Serbian partners. Particular emphasis must be given to strengthening the capacity of local churches and organizations in FRY to assist those in need.

Assistance for the revival of the Yugoslav ecumenical council of churches is important and necessary, and was requested by the Protestant church leaders.
The further networking and mobilization of churches worldwide to discuss the crisis and their respective positions, and to promote a just and negotiated settlement to the crisis, could be encouraged. The special concern of European churches could be focused in a united appeal for a cease fire, cessation of bombing and establishment of a humanitarian corridor into Kosovo.

Similar visits to other churches and partners in the Balkans region should be organized as early as possible, with a view to promoting possible sub-regional inter-church collaboration.

To overcome the isolation and to enhance ecumenical exposure, an increased involvement of FRY churches in the activities and life of the international church organizations should be encouraged.