Wednesday, October 28, 2009


After visiting the women at Djakovica, we left Bishop Teodosije and headed east to the Serbian enclave of Gracanica, which is famous for its ancient monastery.

The photo above was taken from inside the car as we entered the village. Although we crossed no border or passed any walls, I was struck by the sudden shift in the scenery, from Albanian flags, billboards, and mosques to Serbian flags, billboards, and small little icon shrines.

As one monk at the monastery would later tell me: "There is an invisible border, and everyone knows where it is."

When we arrived at the walled compound of the monastery, which also now serves as the headquarters for Kosovo's lone diocese, we once again encountered heavy KFOR protection, including several jeeps and armored personnel carriers. This time, the soldiers were from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

When we entered, we first went to meet His Grace Bishop Artemije, a spiritual child of the Blessed Fr. Justin Popovic. Bishop Artemije has been no stranger to controversy, both in his role as sole bishop of the disputed province and on the wider stage as a critic of the ecumenical movement.

Bishop Artemije was very gracious to us and, after visiting with him for awhile and exchanging books, he took us to the small chapel dedicated to St. Maximos the Confessor inside his diocesan headquarters. We are in the chapel in the photo above.

Afterward, a monk took us over to the famous katholikon which lay in the center of the compound.

I hope the photos can give you some idea of beauty and antiquity of the frescoes there.

Here we are in front of the katholikon with one of the sisters of the women's monastery there. The compound is mainly and historically a women's monastery, but, out of necessity, the diocesan headquarters and episcopal residence have moved there now, along with about 5 monks who assist Bishop Artemije.

Next we went to visit the icon studio, where Sister Magdalena is now working on a special icon for Western American Diocese of the Mother of God, Queen of Angels, Protectress of Los Angeles (see photo above).

We finally left the monastery around 4:00 to begin the journey back to Belgrade. On the way out of Kosovo, we drove through Gazimestan, the site of the memorial erected to the Holy Martyr Lazar of Kosovo commemorating his sacrifice at the Battle of Kosovo there in 1389.

Finally, we reached the "border" with Serbia, and here things got interesting. Because Serbia (and many other countries, such as Russia) do not recognize Kosovo as a country, there cannot, ipso facto, be any border. For them, it is a part of Serbia that is being administered and occupied by international peacekeeping forces.

Since we had left Serbia on Friday, my passport had been stamped out of Serbia. And because we entered Kosovo through Montenegro (which recognizes Kosovo's independence), we had been stamped into Kosovo. Now the problem was that, for the Serbian authorities, I was sitting in the middle of Serbia with nothing certifying that I was legally in the country. This wasn't a problem for Bishop Maxim or Fr. Sava, so once again an American was complicating things in Kosovo. :)

Apparently, this is a known problem (although not to us), and the solution for passport holders of countries which have recognized Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence is to enter Serbia by a recognized border. If you're in a car, that means crossing into the FYROM and then entering Serbia from there, a detour of many hours.

Here's where traveling with a bishop can be helpful. The first thing I should note was that the Serbian guards who greeted us at the unofficial "border" were happy to see us, and gladly received gifts of small paper icons of the Panagia which we had brought from Decani. I also noticed that several of them wore prayer ropes on their wrists.

After some discussions, the head of the post called the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic. Since it was Sunday afternoon, I suppose it took some time to find him, so we waited. But after about 45 minutes, he had been reached and gave me special permission to enter Serbia. So we waved goodbye to the friendly guards and headed on to Belgrade.

But this wasn't the end of the story. On Monday evening, when I went to the Belgrade airport to come back to Thessaloniki, I had the misfortune to get a bright young woman as border agent. Although my passport is filled with all sorts of stamps, she was one of the rare few who decided to try to sort them out. As she was asking me where my entry stamp into Serbia was, she flipped onto the page with the entry stamp into Kosovo and she went silent. I was foreseeing a problem, so I quickly explained what had happened and her face softened.

She explained in no uncertain terms that the stamp from the "Republic of Kosovo" was invalid, a proposition to which I was and am only too happy to consent, and then proceeded to cross it out and put a Serbian stamp next to it (see photo below).

I had another interesting episode at the airport that night. Since it was rather late, the airport was dead when my friend Rastko and I arrived there. We went to the counter for JAT (the Serbian national airline), where the woman was quietly reading a book. I had a bottle of Decani Monastery's famous red wine that I was hoping to bring back with me, but she kindly informed us that, since it was a liquid, I could not carry it on with me. I asked about checking it somehow, but she said it would probably break. We agreed that Rastko would just take it and, thanking her and wishing her a good night, we started to walk away.

Then Rastko stopped and said: "Why don't we give it to her?" I thought it was a great idea, so we turned around and offered it to her. Her expression was priceless. She was so surprised and happy! She took my blessing and Rastko and I headed out to find a place to sit and wait. When we walked back by the counter some minutes later on the way to security, we looked over and what did we see? She had invited all her co-workers over to her desk, where they had opened the bottle and were drinking it!

I thought: Ah, I love Serbia! :)

That's it for this adventure. Again, for all the photos from the Kosovo portion of the trip, click here.

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