Thousands of Serb pilgrims gathered in a medieval monastery in western Kosovo amid tight security on Sunday to attend the enthronement ceremony of the new Serbian Patriarch Irinej.
The ceremony, in the Pec Patriarchate, the spiritual seat of Serbian clergy, took place just outside the ethnic Albanian-dominated town of Pec. Serbia's President, Boris Tadic also attended the ceremony.
Some 900 Kosovo police were called up to provide security alongside European Union police and NATO peacekeepers, amid fears of infiltration by ethnic Albanians bent on violence. No incidents were reported, although posters were put up overnight showing the Serbian Patriarch against a fiery background with the words "Go to Hell" written across them.
On Sunday, Serb faithful scrambled for space in the complex of churches that Serbs consider the seat of the medieval Serbian state and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Some were draped in the Serbian flag waiting to get a glimpse of their spiritual leader.
Many lined up to buy church candles and memorabilia.
The patriarch has urged Kosovo's majority Albanians and minority Serbs to overcome their differences and find a "just solution" for the territory's contested political status.
The two sides are to enter talks on resolving their dispute, although no date has been set yet. Kosovo leaders say they will not back down from their declaration of independence, recognized by 70 countries, including the United States and most nations in the European Union, but are willing to discuss issues regarding the Serb minority in Kosovo's north.
"From this holy place we plead the powerful actors of the world not to burden their souls with sin by finding a solution for this southern Serbian province that will deprive the Serbian nation of its heritage, property, graves of its ancestors and its sacred sites," Irinej told the faithful minutes after the ceremony.
The clergy were helped by Italian peacekeepers to make space for over 40 buses that brought the pilgrims from Serbia. Many of them fled Kosovo in 1999 fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians after Serb forces were driven out by NATO's 78-day bombing campaign.
"I feel great," said Vuk Vuksanic, a Kosovo Serb who escaped into neighboring Montenegro in 1999. "This is my country. I was born here."
The Serbs cherish Kosovo as the cradle of their history and culture and reject the 2008 declaration of independence by majority ethnic Albanians. Kosovo's leaders were pressed by international monitors to allow the enthronement ceremony to take place despite ethnic tensions between the two foes.
Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians, mostly civilians, were killed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war as Serb forces launched a crackdown on the separatist guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army. Hundreds of Serbs were killed in retaliation attacks after the war, their houses and property burned.
Pec was one of the hardest-hit areas and the ceremony has troubled ethnic Albanians.
"This makes no sense," Jakup Zeka, an ethnic Albanian, told The Associated Press. "The same people that have massacred us are coming back. This is intolerable."
Kosovo's leaders are overseen by international officials who have the power to take decisions to protect the Serbian minority.
Source: AP News