The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Report / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Religion in Kosovo

This report seeks to describe the current position of the three major religious communities in Kosovo. In part, it aims to clarify misconceptions about the involvement of religion in the Kosovo conflict.

Executive Summary

This report seeks to describe the current position of the three major religious communities in Kosovo.  In part, it aims to clarify misconceptions about the involvement of religion in the Kosovo conflict.  It also proposes some areas where religion might serve as a means to encourage reconciliation among the peoples of Kosovo. 

Three religions – Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, have long coexisted in Kosovo.  A large majority of Kosovo Albanians consider themselves, at least nominally, to be Muslim.  A minority, about 60,000, are Catholic.  Most Kosovo Serbs, even those who are not active religious believers, consider Orthodoxy to be an important component of their national identity.  Nevertheless, despite this essential division of religious activities along ethnic lines, it cannot be said that religion per se was an important contributing factor in the conflict between Serbs and Albanians. 

Kosovo Albanians do not define their national identity through religion, but through language and have a relatively relaxed approach towards the observance of the forms of the Islamic religion.  Neither Islamic leaders nor Islamic theology played a significant role in either the eight-year campaign of non-violent resistance to the Serb occupation regime or the armed resistance of 1998-99.  Islamic political and social fundamentalism, as that term is understood with respect to the Middle East, has very little resonance in Kosovo. 

The image of Kosovo Serbs and their monasteries, usually portrayed as suffering harassment and persecution by the Albanian majority population, formed a part of the nationalist propaganda that Milosevic and his supporters used to manipulate popular emotions.  The Serbian Orthodox Church, however, was always divided over Milosevic.  It initially supported him in large part to end what it saw as the victimisation of the Serb nation under Communism and to reverse the decline of the Serb presence in Kosovo.  But Milosevic’s Communist career made the Church uneasy, as did his use of violence.  By the early 1990s, Patriarch Pavle was publicly criticising Milosevic although some other members of the Orthodox hierarchy continued to support him.  After the 1999 war, Bishop Artemije, the head of the Orthodox Church in Kosovo, assumed the leadership of those Serbs willing to work with the International community there. 

During the war, Serb forces destroyed numerous Islamic facilities, including virtually all Islamic libraries and archives.  After the war, Albanians replied by destroying scores of Orthodox churches.  These acts of reciprocal vandalism seemed motivated on both sides more by the desire to eradicate the evidence of the other's presence in Kosovo than by religious fanaticism.             

The Serbian and Albanian religious communities have been more willing to talk to each other than other sectors of Kosovo society.  As early as March 1999, before the NATO-led intervention, representatives appointed by the leaders of the three main religious communities in Kosovo (Islamic, Orthodox and Roman Catholic) held a joint meeting in Pristina that was convened by the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) to facilitate dialogue.  The representatives expressed opposition to the misuse of religion for political reasons on all sides and called on all parties not to use religious symbols to promote violence or intolerance.  They also expressed their determination to maintain direct contacts between the religious communities and to build channels of communication.  An informal level of dialogue has continued on a regular basis between some members of the three main religious communities.  These interfaith meetings still contain some risks for the participants, but they can be useful for facilitating a better climate of tolerance and understanding between the ethnic communities and might appropriately be the focus of greater international community support. 

Pristina/Brussels, 31 January 2001

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.