What is a nation? Profound discussion at Church & Peace Conference in Pristina

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Barbara Forbes

According to Leonardo Gialloretti a nation is an entity which carves out as much territory for itself as it can, thus bringing division and despair to groups which had hitherto lived, with minimal friction, alongside and intertwined with each other.

Leonardo Emberti Gialloretti from the  of the Sant'Egidio community in Rome, gave this thought to the recent gathering of Church and Peace in Kosovo in the heart of the Balkans – a region which, we were told, has “too much history”. Different peoples, he went on, have different interpretations of the same events – and every people's story has to do with sorrow. Sorrow is engraved on the heart of the Balkan people, as it is on many communities all around the world; and the only way to heal this sorrow is through dialogue.

Dialogue is at the heart of the mission of Church and Peace, a European ecumenical network of churches, organisations and individuals who wish to renew continually their commitment to living as members of a peace church. As well as enabling networking and mutual support between its members, Church and Peace has contributed to the thinking of the World Council of Churches and has recently been a major influence in the German Protestant Church's decision to examine what it would mean to be a “church of a just peace”.

It is not easy being a network whose members are so scattered, and the annual meetings are an important landmark in the calendar. This time, the network had been invited to Kosovo by one of its newest members, the evangelical protestant Fellowship of the Lord's People – a small church in a country where 95% come from a Muslim background and where the other 5% is mainly shared between Roman Catholics and Serbian Orthodox. Nevertheless, this little church has been welcomed by the other faiths into their midst and we were able to meet representatives of all the other religious communities in the country – including one of only 50 Jews.

The recent violent history of Kosovo means that everyone over 20 has vivid memories of war, death and destruction. Much of the country was destroyed, and whole villages are  being rebuilt. The country is under UN administration and is protected by KFOR troops – something which is unobtrusive until, for example, you have to go through a NATO checkpoint before proceeding to a famous and beautiful mediaeval Serbian Orthodox monastery which needs protection because of its policy of sheltering people from all ethnicities during periods of conflict.

Standing on the site of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, we learned that this was the spot where Milosevic's 1989 speech signalled the disintegration of Yugoslavia; every year crowds still come to make nationalist pro-Serbian speeches. Although the church leaders are engaged in continual dialogue, it was not clear how influential they are amongst the general public, nor what is the level of religious observance in the different communities. We learned that tension is increasing, and during our visit some MPs in parliament threw tear gas at each other while debating a proposal to give greater control to Serbs in those areas where they are in the majority. Two days after our departure, one of those MPs was arrested, leading to street riots. But thanks to electronic communication, we were able to establish from our newly-found friends that calm was quickly restored.

Here in the west, we can only guess at the importance to our Balkan friends of the support and solidarity they experience by being part of this network.