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Serbian Monastery Withstands 700 Years of Threats

The architectural jewel of Kosovo is the Decani monastery near Peje in the mountainous west of the Albanian-populated Serbian province. VOA's Barry Wood recently visited the 14th century Orthodox church, which has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Situated on a forested hillside, it is a simple building with graceful arches and a small dome. Art historians call Decani the most significant medieval structure in this part of Europe. It was built by the Serbian king Dusan Decanski in the mid-1300s and is the largest medieval church in the Balkans.

As they have done for centuries, Decani's monks live a simple life, growing and harvesting their own food.

Father Nektarije is one of the 34 Orthodox monks residing at the monastery.

"We are in the first part of Decani Monastery church," he said. "It is a very ancient building, preserved so far in (the) shape as it was at the time it was built."

Decani's wall frescoes depicting scenes from the bible are among its greatest treasures.

But all this is threatened because Decani today is in a zone of conflict. The people outside the monastery walls are ethnic Albanians strongly opposed to any reassertion of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo. Aside from the monks, there are few Serbs in this region.

Decani's monks and the monastery are guarded 24 hours a day by Italian troops that are part of NATO's peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Father Nektarije says the monks and the few Serbs inside the compound are grateful for the protection, but…

"We are living in this monastery like in a prison," he said. "We cannot go to the village and shop for ourselves as we used to do in the past."

Last March when Kosovo was engulfed in anti-Serb rioting, Decani narrowly escaped damage. Deputy abbot, Father Sava, says Decani - even though it is in Kosovo - is at the epicenter of Serbian culture and religion.

"The soul of our people is enshrined around these holy sanctuaries such as Decani monastery, Pec Patriarchate, and Gracanica monastery," he said. "It is also our history, our identity. So these are not just edifices that can be rebuilt or transferred somewhere. Actually, they mean our history, what we really are, what we should be."

Father Sava and the other monks hope that whatever Kosovo's future may be, Decani will remain a place of peace. And, they say, it could even be a place that brings people together to celebrate an architectural treasure that has survived for nearly 700 years.