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Christian Sites Being Decimated in Kosovo : Balkans: Serbs accuse ethnic Albanian rebels of systematically destroying places sacred to Orthodox.


ZOCISTE, Yugoslavia — The church was built of stones quarried six centuries ago from the rock of Kosovo, and before last week's blast it had the power to make people believe in miracles.

For generations, through endless cycles of war and foreign occupation, people came to the small Serbian Orthodox shrine behind monastery walls and asked the spirits of saints to heal them.

Pilgrims reached out to touch caskets said to contain relics of St. Cosma and St. Damian, or lay down beside them and whispered a prayer before closing their eyes and waiting to be healed. Even ethnic Albanian Muslims were known to come.

But the saints' power was as nothing against the explosion Sept. 13 that collapsed the 14th century church.

The charges that destroyed it were placed at just the right spot to bring the whole medieval building down and make certain there was nothing left to rebuild.

The Church of Saints Cosma and Damian was built in 1327. It is now a ruin of broken stone, yellowed by the centuries that the sanctuary endured.

Four other, newer buildings where the monks lived and worked were not blown up. They were gutted by fire instead, and scorched pieces of religious icons lie among the ruins.

A Painted Acronym Suggests Complicity

The letters UCK, the Albanian acronym for the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, were painted neatly in white on the wooden doors at the monastery's front gate.

The Zociste monastery is one of at least 60 Serbian Orthodox churches and other religious sites that have been looted, burned or, in at least 21 cases, blown up since the NATO-led peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, began to take control of Kosovo--a province of Serbia, the dominant of Yugoslavia's two republics--from retreating Serbian forces in mid-June. The Serbs say they were promised that several hundred of their soldiers and police would be permitted to return to guard Orthodox churches and sites in the province as well as to secure border posts, but so far that hasn't happened.

The list of sites destroyed by explosives includes several dating back to the Middle Ages, such as the Dormition of Mother of God parish church, built near Suva Reka in 1315.

Orthodox leaders have received reports that 20 more churches and monasteries have been destroyed, but it is too dangerous for Serbs to check their condition, Father Sava Janjic, an Orthodox cleric, said in an interview. Orthodox churches, religious offices and schools have also been targeted with grenades and rockets but not seriously damaged, KFOR reports confirm.

The skilled execution of the attacks leaves Janjic and most other Serbs convinced that well-trained KLA guerrilla units are secretly trying to wipe out historical Serbian links to the territory.

"It is more than obvious that these churches were destroyed by people with military training, people who still have not just ordinary weapons but hundreds of kilos of the best explosives," Janjic said.

"We are completely sure that the perpetrators of these crimes are from the ranks of the KLA," he said. "It is now only a question whether these groups are under the control of the highest KLA officials or not."

Dutch troops are posted just over a mile from Zociste, guarding Velika Hoca, a Serbian village of vineyards and churches dating back to the Middle Ages.

The village is outside the city of Orahovac, where ethnic Albanian leaders say Serbs killed 163 people after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24.

Serbian security and paramilitary forces, led by the head of the local winery, began rounding up and executing ethnic Albanians, said Agim Hesku, who leads a protest blockade that has been keeping Russian peacekeepers out of Orahovac since Aug. 23. A local Serbian doctor and Russian mercenaries participated in the killings, Hesku said.

At least 1,800 of the region's 60,000 ethnic Albanians were slain and an additional 1,000 are missing, Hesku said.

Hazards Hamper Search for Evidence

Peacekeeping troops have not found any suspects in the attack on the monastery in Zociste, and two Dutch army officers said troops hadn't gone in to examine the ruins for fear of land mines.

The officers, who would not speak on the record, said Dutch troops were ordered after the blast to block the wooden gate of the walled monastery with coils of razor wire.

"I'm afraid KFOR is not prepared to get in serious conflict with the KLA because KFOR countries don't want the coffins of their soldiers coming home," Janjic said.

Senior leaders of the KLA, such as political head Hashim Thaci, have publicly condemned attacks on Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo and insist that the separatist rebels are not behind the attacks on religious sites or other violence.

"All acts of violence and threats against Kosovo citizens are taking place with the goal of discrediting the national resistance movement," namely the KLA, Thaci said Aug. 19.

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