Beliefnet
PRIZREN, Yugoslavia, Aug. 22 (RNS)--Throughout Kosovo, there are two major kinds of churches, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox. It is easy to tell the difference.

The Serbian Orthodox churches are notable for the NATO tanks parked outside, for the rows of coiled razor wire, for the sandbagged guardposts, and for the soldiers with automatic weapons who demand identification from visitors.

Roman Catholic churches in Kosovo are unguarded and unfortified.

Kosovo's 60,000 Catholics, who make up about 4% of the province's population, are enjoying a period of long-awaited freedom and growth. At the same time, the once dominant Serbian Orthodox Church is under steady attack from ethnic Albanian Muslims here who identify the Serbian church with decades of government discrimination.

Because the vast majority of Kosovo Catholics are ethnic Albanians, there is little of the ethnic animosity that divides Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Albanians.

In a recent interview in his residence in Kosovo's second-largest city, Roman Catholic Bishop Marko Sopi spoke brightly of the church's future in the brutalized province, where a NATO-led military force and a United Nations administration are slowly restoring order.

"If the economic conditions get better, we will grow. The birth rate is high, and as long as people stay here, we will grow," said Sopi, 62, noting that Catholic and Muslim families in Kosovo typically include four or five children.

An improving Kosovo economy may also lure back some of the 40,000 Kosovar Catholics who make up Albanian-language parishes in Croatia, Austria, Germany, and Detroit, Sopi said.

The Vatican, too, would appear to have confidence in Kosovo's Catholics. In late June, it declared the province an apostolic administration and named Sopi apostolic administrator. Under canon law, apostolic administrations are forerunners to full-fledged dioceses in regions where a diocesan structure is not practical. Previously, Kosovo was part of the diocese of Skopje, Macedonia, a country that achieved independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

If current trends continue, Roman Catholicism will supplant Serbian Orthodoxy as the dominant Christian faith in Kosovo.

About 150,000 Serbs have fled Kosovo in the last year since NATO forces led the return of ethnic Albanians. That leaves roughly 100,000 nominally Orthodox Serbs behind, living in a hostile and dangerous environment.

Bishop Sopi, a genial man with an authoritative bearing, said in an earlier interview that local Serbs' flight from Kosovo was a natural process.

"One thing must be clear: The Serbs did not just run to Serbia because the Albanians were driving them out," he said, adding that the Serbs "behaved themselves very badly for the last 10 years and especially during the war, so they have reason to fear for their lives."

During 78 days of NATO bombing and Serb attacks on Albanian Kosovars, Sopi remained in Kosovo along with the vast majority of his 36 priests and 70 nuns.

He said Catholics were not subject to discrimination for their faith.

Muslim leaders, however, say 217 mosques in the region have been damaged. Serbian Orthodox clergy cite 80 churches and monasteries that have been desecrated.

With plenty of priestly vocations, pledges from Western Catholic organizations to construct a first-ever Catholic kindergarten and primary school, and warm relations with politically ascendant Kosovar Muslims, the Catholic Church here is poised to grow at a rate not seen since the late 19th century, when Ottoman rulers permitted a flurry of church building.

Aside from the demographic dynamic created by departing Serbs and highly fertile Kosovar Catholics, some longtime parishioners say the Catholic Church will grow simply because it has a better image.

"Catholicism is more civilized, and the people of Kosovo have seen that," said Pal Kukeli, 55, a Catholic farmer taking a cigarette break from an ordination Mass on a recent Saturday in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. "We are turning toward Europe. The Catholic Church will grow without a doubt."

Bahtir Hamza, another Catholic taking a break during the 2 1/2-hour ordination service attended by dozens of clergy and three Catholic hierarchs from the Balkans, said he was a rarity in Kosovo: a Muslim who converted to Catholicism.

Since converting, Hamza, a 44-year-old writer, said he has encountered opposition from neighbors in his Muslim village to the idea of converting his home into a Roman Catholic Church.

"I believe that every Albanian is a Catholic," said Hamza, a lively man sporting a white goatee. "The people who are Muslims were forced to be that way by the Turks. This is the disaster that befell the Albanian people."

Despite the neighbors' hostility, Hamza vowed, "I will make my house a church so we can destroy the primitivism of Islam."

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