ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS 

THE VERY REV MILUN KOSTIK

For most of my lifetime, outside the narrow confines of those who pursued the "useless" discipline of history, Yugoslavia - land of the Southern Slavs - meant one of three things. For many the Dalmatian coast was a new and inexpensive holiday location. For some Sarajevo registered as the site of a beautiful and unusual winter Olympics. For the learned, and players of Trivial Pursuit, it was the site of the assassination which triggered the Great War.

All of these are true but scarcely a guide to the incredible history and ethnic complexity of the Balkan Problem or of the greater enigma of which this was a part, the Eastern Question - bane of all A-level students.

It is thirty years since it first intrigued and perplexed me. It was old Frank Jones, my much loved history teacher, who got me at it. Academic gown awry and an ashtray full of recently discarded butts, "Fag-ash" Frank unpacked the tribal luggage via J.A.R. Marriott's "The Eastern Question": the abutting and rotting empires of Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey; the grand expansion plans of German imperialism; the plans to link Berlin and Baghdad - a railway and an alliance that would crush forever the self-determination of the Slavs, sink Russian ambitions on the Med and outflank and threaten the far reaches of the British Empire.

The fields of Kosovo; the mountain fastness of Montenegro; the Islamic enclaves in Bosnia; and the fearsome warriors of Serbia: these were not words on a page. Frank had visited them. He had even taken his 1920s motorbike tour through the Sanjak of NoviBazar where he was wined and dined and presented with the two largest water melons the village could find. Torn between safety and social responsibility he had balanced them on his handlebars for a couple of miles before heaving them into a ravine.

For the first half of this century Britain regarded Serbia in particular as a doughty little ally; a stumbling block to the German expansion eastward, Soviet penetration westward and Islamic ambitions northward. For their part the Serbs regarded the Brits with deep affection and regarded anything German with suspicion and loathing. The tragic events of the last five years have seen a sea change in British policy and a civil war whose origin and raison d'etre the British media has almost uniformly failed to investigate or explain.

The Orthodox Church, persecuted and robbed under Tito, has recovered little power or influence under the various war leaders - all of them former communists (except in Bosnia where the leadership was imprisoned for its desire for an Islamic state).

It was on a scorching late summer day that I made my way to the Church of St Sava in the Lancaster Road to talk to Fr. Milun Kostic, the Rector and spiritual leader of the Serbian Orthodox community in England.

Fr. Milun welcomed me into his study as an excited Serbian student insisted on sharing a bottle with us. He had just achieved his required exam grades. On the wall was a great ikon of St Sava, patron of Serbia, and a map of England and Wales predating the abolition of Huntingdonshire and Rutland and the ludicrous inventions of Avon and an atomised Yorkshire. There on his shelves - J.A.R. Marriott - the sole English volume.

Kostic has a gentle but firm manner and a warmth that grew as he spoke of his people's dilemma. I asked him:

Where were you born?

"In West Serbia, Bioska near Uzice. My parents were farmers - arable, cattle and sheep. I had three brothers and three sisters. All my sisters became nuns. I have two nephews who are priests and my son in law is a priest."

How many children have you?

"Three. A daughter of 24 who married in February and is a graduate in German and Russian, a son of 20 who is training for accountancy and computing and a daughter of 16 at Godolphin and Latimer who wants to study medicine."

What is the size of your congregation here?

"Regular attendance is 600 but there are several thousand members and we have churches in Derby, Leicester, Bedford and Bradford."

When did you first know you were being called to priesthood?

"At primary school. I went to as many church services as I could carrying out the full preparation and fasts for Communion. It was necessary to go to other parishes so you wouldn't be known, The communists bitterly disapproved and life was difficult for Christians. All church property was confiscated and has never been returned. Schools and colleges taught there was no God and to have a priestly vocation was regarded as insane."

Where did you train?

"Bogoslovia in Belgrade".

My wife, Sara, and I stayed in Bogoslovia a few years after Fr Milun graduated. It was a Spartan establishment: a severe brick building; seven years training; living in dormitories of fourteen beds, going down to private rooms of only four beds by the senior two years. The bathroom was a horse trough and a cold tap. The dining room changed into the chapel by the unfolding of the Ikonostasis. The hospitality was overwhelming, their commitment total and neither of us will forget the massed ranks of those young men on the steps bidding us farewell with the resonant basses of the orthodox benediction, "Many years".

How did you meet your wife? Was it through a photo album?

An orthodox priest must be married before he is ordained or remain single. If you had no contacts there was a photo album of girls who had vocations to be a priest's wife and an ordinand could meet a chaperoned candidate. All this may sound very strange to western minds but, of course, the arranged marriage does tend to last longer and it does take the vocation of priests wife far more seriously than our churches.

"No photograph album for me, though. I met Dobrila at a patronal festival. She was a teacher but now she works in a bank and teaches at Sunday school."

Was Dobrila a believer?

"She believed in God but without any clear idea about doctrine till she met me. At that point love was more important." The last two remarks are accompanied by a merry laugh.

Where were you posted?

"I was ordained on the Serbian Holy Mountain and sent to Melbourne in 1971, and in 1977 we came to London. The community here is about 15,000."

Are you the only priest here?

"Yes. I have a deacon in full time secular work and a very thriving community centre next door but we could do with another priest."

How old is Christianity in Serbia?

"Well, the founding of the Archdiocese under St Sava, a prince of the dynasty, was in 1219. But there were Byzantine connections from the seventh century and the people were greatly influenced by the disciples of St Cyril and St Methodius. For an hundred and seventy years Serbia was independent and powerful and her monasteries thrived."

It was these monasteries that sustained the faith in the dark times of Ottoman rule and the festering decay of Austro-Hungarian oppression. They were still to be found as centres of resistance against Nazi and Communist tyranny alike.

The contribution of the religious orders, so neglected by the protestant west, has proved critical to the maintenance of faith and doctrine under severe persecution in the East. Sixteen years ago we stood in one of the great hinterland monasteries. Every face on the ikon mural had been chiselled out, soot stains flared up the walls and a regular line of holes perforated the crucified at chest height. We asked Bishop Stefan, hero of the resistance, what caused all this. He replied,

"The Turks smashed our ikons, the Austrians tried to burn us down and the Nazis shot our priests and brothers - but we are still here"

When did Serbia lose its independence?

"The Turkish victory at Kosovo in 1389 was the beginning. After seventy years of further resistance, the fall of Smederovo in 1459 was effectively the end, though Belgrade did not fall until 1521."

What about Bosnia?

"Well Bosnia never existed as a separate state. It was always an area under someone else and, under the Turks, they converted to Islam. To remain Christian for five hundred years under Muslim rule is a costly business."

Was there resentment against the Bosnians?

"Yes. But you must remember that the people had learned to live together for centuries. The Croats and Slovenes had co-operated with the Austro-Hungarian Empire but we came together as a nation. During the Second World War the Croats operated a puppet Nazi state which killed 1,700,000 Serbs under the Ustase. Its public policy, under Germany, was to convert one third of the Serbs to Roman Catholicism, to drive out a third and to kill a third. Still we subsequently lived together."

People in Britain have been puzzled and, frankly, horrified by Serbian policy in recent years. Christians will ask:

Why hasn't the church done more?

"First, we as Christians feel great sorrow for the suffering on all sides. The Church has very little influence politically - no power or property or public voice. Things are a little better than they were, but not much. They did not hear the church yesterday and they don't listen today. The choice for the Serbs is pretty bleak. The splintered parts of Yugoslavia are governed by three communists and a man who wants an Islamic state. The last time the Serbs had to live in an independent Croatia backed by Germany, the price was genocide and no Serb is willingly going to opt for life in a Muslim state."

There is genuine and profound astonishment amongst Serbs on the reporting of the war in Britain. They regard us as old allies and friends, alert to the dangers of Islamic expansion and Germanic domination of Europe. The encouragement and recognition of the division of Yugoslavia left the Serbs with insuperable problems. As the most economically viable parts of the country were creamed off, they were left with no access to the sea, a large national debt and a deeply impoverished south, now swamped with several generations of Albanian immigrants. Further more their people in the newly formed states were not invaders. They had lived there for centuries and were unwilling to accept a European Union policy (for which Serbs read "German") which put them under their old enemies.

How do Serbs regard the British?

"With great affection. We have fought on the same side in the great wars of this century and when we were persecuted you helped our people and priests in exile. Serbs stood firm against the Nazi menace at great cost. Our Patriarch Gavril and the great bishop Nikolai were both in Dachau. Mikhailovic was the first guerilla fighter against the Nazis."

Some Anglicans have looked towards orthodoxy as a possible home. What would you advise?

"Go to the Greeks or Russians. I haven't enough time to do my own job!" (There is a big grin on his face.) "Seriously. If a man wants to change his faith because he doesn't like his bishop then I don't like that. If he changes because his church is heretical, denying the faith, then he has little choice."

How do you cope with the scandal of orthodoxy i.e. several bishops in one place to cater for ethnic divisions.

"It is an accident of the diaspora, emigration and new communities. I think it will end because soon the majority of those in the U.S.A. and Britain will speak English better than their native tongue. We will continue to teach our culture but emigration drains the homeland. The key is orthodoxy whatever language it is in."

How do you regard the Church of England?

"We have good relations but increasing worries about its liberalism. The former bishop of Durham should never have been a bishop. When George Carey was appointed I read his books to make sure that he believed in the Resurrection. He did. I said O.K. - that's fundamental. Now he seems to be very liberal. Modern Christians need to understand that you cannot vote on the truth. Our faith is based on the Bible, the preaching of the Apostles and the teaching of the fathers. Who gives you the right to change the Bible? If today everyone is suddenly liberal, does that change the truth?"

"At a World Council of Churches meeting in Belgium some anglican priests kept talking about this "post-christian period". It is because of men like this that the faith is in such trials. They did not believe it. But how can they look their parishioners in the eye? If Christ taught it and the Holy Fathers lived it, who am I to change or deny it? The man who tells you "I will show you something better than Christ or I know better for the church than Jesus" is a deceiver. It is impossible."

There is real passion in his words - the same frustration and commitment felt by many evangelicals at the dreary disobedience and doctrinal dilution that have gravely weakened the western church.

How do you regard Islam?

"I admire the Muslims. They know how to keep their faith."

Do you think Islam is a threat to Europe?

"Of course, it always has been. Not for nothing have the Serbs been called the Guardians of the Gate. Very soon you will see - not your children - you."

What should we do in England?

"Pray and pray for us. Work hard and get your people back to church - teach them the faith. Preach Christ - the time is short."

There is a quiet sadness in his voice and a steady gaze. It is impossible for a son of these islands to comprehend the heritage of five hundred years oppression under the Ottomans and how regularly and ineptly the machinations and misperceptions of the great powers have brought bloodshed to this little causeway between two worlds.

Fr Milun bade me farewell and went to prepare for his Thursday evening young people's group. I went out into the evening sunlight, past the early shift of prostitutes at the entrance to Ladbroke Grove tube and onto the train. By odds that would take a mathematician to calculate I was seated next to an elderly academic working on the Balkan question.

Why, I asked him, did he think we had so singularly failed to prevent or resolve the civil war ?

His reply was brief and withering:

"A nation with no recognisable spiritual leadership, no historian worth his salt within shouting distance of the decision makers and no cabinet minister who has served in the armed forces is not in a good position to understand the Balkan problem never mind provide a solution."

In former times the Church of England has had great influence on the church in Yugoslavia. I left praying that God may somehow, even yet, use this ancient friendship in the quest for peace and reconciliation and the rebuilding of his church.

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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