Serb Church says Belgrade must act tough on Kosovo

Belgrade, Serbia - Serbia should organise protests and military exercises to warn Kosovo and its Western backers it will not tolerate a declaration of independence by the breakaway province, a Serb Orthodox Church leader said on Tuesday.

Bishop Artemije, the most senior Orthodox Church official in southern Serbia, said in an open letter that Serbia must act decisively "the day before" and give a serious warning of what might happen if Kosovo declared independence.

Serbia should close the border between Kosovo and Serbia for three days, call in monitors from China, Russia, India and Pakistan, and mobilise army reservists, Artemije wrote.

"We should organise military exercises in areas close to Kosovo and we should organise massive demonstrations in Belgrade and other cities so everybody realises how important Kosovo is to Serbia," he said in the letter to local media.

Almost 18 months of internationally mediated talks, concluded last week, failed to produce a compromise between Serbia's offer of autonomy and the independence demands of Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority.

Kosovo plans to declare independence within months.

The United States and almost all European Union member states support Kosovo's move as the best option for stability in the Balkans. Serbia says independence is out of the question for a territory it regards as its religious heartland.

The southern province has been under U.N. rule since 1999 when NATO bombs expelled Serb forces accused of killing ethnic Albanian civilians while battling separatist rebels.

Artemije wrote Belgrade should act before it is too late because any actions coming the day after a declaration of independence would be "pointless".

"There is no Kosovo problem," Artemije concluded. "There is a problem of the Albanian minority in Serbia that deserves a solution based on the way similar problems were solved in all democratic countries of the world."

The Serb Orthodox Church has been very vocal on the protection of more than 1,000 Serb monasteries and churches in the province, and it is also trying to reclaim large amounts of land it owned before World War Two. Some 140 religious monuments have been attacked by vandals since the end of the 1998-99 war.

Nenad Lajbensperger, a historian at the Serbian Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, said Kosovo's almost mythical status in Serbian history had been ingrained in the national psyche.

"The Church was what kept Serb identity alive during Ottoman rule, and that identity and culture was preserved through churches in Kosovo that still stand today," he said.