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Catholics in Kosovo Suffer as Muslims Do

Balkans: Ethnic Albanian faithful in province, says one priest, are oppressed minority within oppressed majority.

March 15, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KLINA, Yugoslavia — When he says Mass today, Father Frane Sopi will gather his congregation of ethnic Albanian Roman Catholics under the open skies on a vacant, rocky hillside here in this southern Kosovo town, just as he has done for the last six years.

He will pray for peace in a region that only recently was torn by devastating, deadly violence. If it starts to rain or snow, the parishioners can duck into a children's recreational room and squat on low wooden benches that occasionally double as pews.

Armed with legal permits and favorable court decisions, Sopi has been trying to erect a Catholic church on this site since 1992. Local Serbian authorities have repeatedly blocked his attempts.

"The main reason is hatred," said Sopi, who has ministered to Albanian Catholics here for 20 years. "The only argument they have is the argument of power."

Instead of a church for his 5,270-member flock, all Sopi has to show for his efforts are a waterlogged empty pit in the backyard of his parish house and piles of rusting, iron-reinforced rods.

This is the kind of insidious harassment that ethnic Albanians say they routinely suffer at the hands of Serbian authorities.

Harassment escalated to violent repression earlier this month when Serbian paramilitary police attacked Albanian separatists in an operation that killed at least 77 ethnic Albanian adults and children.

Klina, a predominantly Catholic community, sits only about 20 miles from the center of that death and destruction.

Like most of the region, the town is still under heavy police restrictions. An especially nasty police checkpoint is set up at the entrance to the town. And several Albanian Catholics were beaten by police who accosted them on the streets of Klina during the last week, a local witness said.

Most of the close to 2 million Albanians who make up 90% of Kosovo's population are Muslim and trace their religion to the Turkish occupation of this region that began in the 15th century. But about 70,000, by Sopi's count, are Catholic--just like the late Mother Teresa, also an ethnic Albanian.

Sopi said this makes Albanian Catholics an oppressed minority within an oppressed majority.

"Catholics in Kosovo are systematically discriminated against," Sopi said. "They do not allow a Catholic church to be built anywhere" in Kosovo.

By contrast, he said, five Serbian Orthodox churches and one mosque have gone up in recent years in the Klina municipality.

Most Albanians in this region are so contemptuous of Belgrade's rule that they refuse to recognize Serbian authorities and, instead, function in a parallel, substandard system. But Sopi has tried to go through the existing channels to build his church.

Faced with resistance from Klina officials, he obtained the permits from Serbian authorities in the regional capitol, Pristina, in 1992 and won subsequent legal challenges in the Serbian courts.

But in 1994, as volunteers dug pits to lay the church's foundation, the Klina mayor and police chief showed up with two menacing bulldozers. Sopi understood he had to quit.

"I invited them in to talk about it, but they didn't want to talk," said Sopi, 51. "They just said stop."

Since then, Sopi has turned to numerous judicial, political and religious leaders and has even written to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic seeking help, but to no avail.

He has paid dozens of calls on local authorities, who he says always promise to issue an order allowing construction to begin. Then nothing happens.

So Klina's Catholic faithful worship outdoors, unless the cold is unbearable.

In Sopi's backyard, next to the pit above which the church should be built, stand the concrete remains of a chapel that his predecessor was constructing in 1974. Sopi said authorities from the atheist Communist regime of the time destroyed it.

"It was Communist then, extremists now," he said. "And we cannot breathe at all."

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