Catholic official welcomes Kosovo's declaration of independence

By Jonathan Luxmoore Catholic News Service

OXFORD, England (CNS) -- A Catholic official in Kosovo welcomed its declaration of independence, adding that the rights of all people would be guaranteed in the new country.

"We are fully behind independence -- it's a great joy that it has come so quickly," said Msgr. Shan Zefi, chancellor of Kosovo's Catholic apostolic administration in Prizren.

"The Catholic faithful are celebrating throughout Kosovo. We are optimistic about the future, and we expect great things for the Catholic Church," he said Feb. 19, two days after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia.

In a telephone interview with Catholic News Service, he said his church counted on the international community to "defend law and security" in the new state, adding that he had celebrated Mass in thanksgiving for the United States backing Kosovo's independence.

"We are lucky to have such support, and we want to express our church's appreciation to all our American friends," Msgr. Zefi said. "Catholic and Muslim Albanians here are all aware of the role played by the U.S. We can be sure our relations will always be very warm in consequence."

However, Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren urged Christians in the United States and Europe to oppose their countries' "unjustified, immoral and harmful policy" toward Kosovo and called on Serbia to prevent "attempts to complete the practice of violent ethnic cleansing and destruction of remaining monuments of our cultural legacy."

In Belgrade, Serbia, where the U.S. Embassy was attacked by protesters, Archbishop Eugenio Sbarbaro, the papal nuncio, joined Serb leaders Feb. 18 at a service for Kosovo in the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava. Meanwhile, Serb legislators voted to annul the independence declaration.

The Serbian Orthodox Church's governing synod condemned the independence declaration as "a form of violence comparable with the periods of occupation and tyranny" and said Kosovo "must remain an inseparable part of Serbia."

Kosovo had been administered by the United Nations since 1999 after NATO drove out Serbian forces accused of ethnic cleansing

Msgr. Zefi said the Catholic Church had been in touch with Serbian Orthodox and Muslim leaders and had urged "all churches and religious communities to help maintain the peace."

"All communities, whether Albanian or Serb, should have equal rights and duties throughout the country," the Catholic chancellor said. "Although we are only a small minority here, our church will have a special mission to mediate between Orthodox and Muslim inhabitants."

Msgr. Zefi said independence would provide "political and economic motivation" for tackling rampant poverty and unemployment in Kosovo and offer "prospects of progress" to all inhabitants "regardless of faith."

"Our relations with the government are already excellent, and we expect them to improve even further now," said the priest. "But we need also sympathy from the world at large. Much has been destroyed during the conflicts here, and we need recognition and support."

Kosovo's Prizren-based apostolic administration -- a church jurisdiction set up when it is not possible to set up a diocese -- was founded in May 2000 when an existing Catholic diocese spanning the Macedonian-Serbian border was divided. Currently, the administration has 23 parishes, 55 priests and approximately 80 nuns.

Kosovo's 65,000 Catholics make up just 3 percent of its 2.1 million inhabitants, 90 percent of whom are traditionally Muslim.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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