The controversial Catholic Mass at the ruins of the St. Nicholas Church, Novo Brdo, Kosovo

Catholic-Orthodox tensions boil over in Kosovo

The Serbian Orthodox Church has reacted angrily to the celebration of a Catholic Mass in the ruins of St. Nicholas Church near the Novo Brdo fortress, 40km east of the Kosovan capital of Pristina.

Driving the news

As Kossev reports, the Kosovan Catholic Church celebrated a Mass August 1, Albanian Diaspora Day, at what it called “the Catholic Church of St. Nicholas”.

Celebrating the Mass were the Catholic Bishop of Kosovo, Dode Gjergji, and the retired Bishop of Bar (Montenegro), Zef Gashi.

Numerous other clergy and faithful were also in attendance, along with the head of the Kosovo Institute for protection of cultural monuments, Ismet Hajrullahu.

But the Mass prompted a swift and angry reaction from the Serbian Orthodox Church, which considers the ruins of St. Nicholas to have once been the seat of the ancient ecclesiastical territory, or eparchy, known as Lipljan, Gračanica or Novo Brdo.

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The intrigue

The Serbian Orthodox Eparchy of Raška-Prizren and Kosovo-Metohija – to which the territory of Lipljan, Gračanica or Novo Brdo now belongs – said it was “deeply disappointed” with the celebration of the Catholic Mass.

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It said the Catholic celebration amounted to an “act of abuse of the spiritual and cultural heritage of the [Serbian Orthodox Church], on a site founded and built by medieval Serbian rulers”.

The diocese of Raška-Prizren also lamented that the Catholic event “undermines… interfaith relations in Kosovo” and “politicises the heritage” of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

It warned that it will “raise this issue” in future contacts with the Vatican.

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Go deeper

The Orthodox diocese also recalled that not far from the remains of the St. Nicholas Church there are ruins “of a medieval Roman Catholic church known as the Saxon Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was built and used by Saxon miners and merchants of Dubrovnik with the consent of the Serbian medieval rulers”.

“It is quite a reasonable question why the Roman Catholic bishops and their believers did not gather on the remains of their former church, but did so on the foundations of the Orthodox cathedral of Novo Brdo”, the eparchy of Raška-Prizren pointed out.

The eparchy also decried the fact that the St. Nicholas church has recently been subject to restoration works undertaken by the Kosovan Ministry of Culture and Institute for Archaeology without the permission of the Orthodox Church.

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These works have included the opening of medieval tombs and the “erection of pillars… without professional expertise”, the eparchy said, adding that it will request of the authorities special additional protection from “further provocations” at the St. Nicholas site.

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For the record

Despite Orthodox concerns, Catholic Bishop of Kosovo Dode Gjergji insisted that St. Nicholas is a Catholic church.

Explaining the decision to hold the August 1 Mass, Gjergji said “we wanted to come here because it is a place that proves that we were here before we had religion, we were here before Christ’s birth, we were before the Ottomans came with Muhammad, we were here before the Slavs came”.

“We were here, even though our memory may have been erased, we have these stones that prove that we also had faith and that we believed in what we heard in the Gospel, which tells us – This is my command: Love each other”, affirmed Gjergji.

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.