NATO bombing of Serbs mars church's holy day; Orthodox Christians appeal for peaceful end to crisis in Yugoslavia

As the Orthodox Christian world prepares for tomorrow's celebration of Pascha, its holiest feast day, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ, a pall of sadness hangs over what is normally a joyous occasion.

NATO bombs are falling on their brother and sister Serbs in Yugoslavia, many of whom are Orthodox. Leaders of Orthodox Christianity, whether in Maryland, elsewhere in the United States or elsewhere in the world, have united in opposition to the NATO bombing campaign, which has not paused for Holy Week.


"I feel so badly that in this very holy time of the year, the world is in so much turmoil," said the Rev. Constantine Monios, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. "You can't watch television and not have a broken heart. It's so overwhelming."

For the past three days, volunteers have gathered at the Annunciation Center, across the street from the cathedral at Maryland Avenue and Preston Street, to raise money for the Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities that will go toward relief work in the Balkans.


The IOCC, which has kept offices open in Belgrade, Serbia, and Podgorica, Montenegro, but withdrew its staff from Kosovo, serves people in need from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.

"People are going to say, 'Those guys are only going to help one side or the other.' That's not true," said Constantine M. Triantafilou, IOCC executive director. "As a relief agency and an arm of the church, our goal is to respond to crisis and help those most in need, and stay away from the political questions. That's somebody else's department."

The Orthodox Christian hierarchy has been outspoken in opposing the NATO bombing.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, called last week for a cease-fire in the Kosovo conflict, asking that "at this season of the religious feast of the Muslims, the Easter of Roman Catholics and Protestants, the Passover of the Jews and the Pascha of the Orthodox, on bended knees [I] fervently appeal from the tormented depths of my heart to all world government leaders, to military commanders and to those armed forces throughout the world, that they cease fire immediately and permanently."

The eight Orthodox hierarchs, or bishops, wrote to President Clinton asking for a halt to the bombing, "making way for a just, peaceful, negotiated solution to the conflict."

That unity should come as no surprise, said the Rev. Raymond Velencia, a Serbian-American and pastor of the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew in Columbia.

The Orthodox Church is not organized around a centralized hierarchy, like the Roman Catholic Church under the pope.

"We say that the Orthodox Church is a family of churches, united not by a common bishop in one see, but by common faith and practice," he said. "There is a true brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ that exists among the Orthodox because of a common faith, not a common bishopric.


"Yes, the Orthodox world is united in sympathy, in empathy with people who are being bombed relentlessly," Velencia said. "I should think all human beings would be distressed, even if you think the Serbs are demons, by bombing people. If for no other reason, how does bombing make peace?"

Velencia's heritage gives him a perspective on the conflict that has not been heard by many Americans.

He was raised in Steelton, Pa., by parents who were Serbian but were born here. He always considered himself an American first and leads a congregation in the Orthodox Church in America rather than in the Serbian Orthodox Church.

"Being a second-generation Serb, I didn't realize until recently how much our culture has been imparted to us," he said. As an Orthodox Christian, he said, he deplores the violence being committed on both sides.

"I think that the coverage of the refugees can't elicit anything but compassion, heartbreak, sadness," he said. "But I have the same compassion, heartbreak and sadness for a nation that is being bombed, for a people that is experiencing the fury and destruction that our air campaign is bringing upon a nation. All in the name of humanitarian support? Come on."

Velencia said he is particularly distressed that the air raids have continued through Holy Week.


"Did we not only bomb Iraq for four days before the beginning of Ramadan, or is my memory intact?" he said in reference to the halt in the air attack as the Muslim holy day began. "As an Orthodox Christian during this Great and Holy Week, I would like to know where our government's sensitivity is to the millions of people who live in Yugoslavia who will be celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

"Where is that sensitivity that our government showed to the Iraqis?"

Velencia said that in recent days, he has been thinking about Yugoslavian Orthodox Christians who will observe the tradition of walking in processions around the outside of their churches on Good Friday and Holy Saturday nights.

"I'm thinking that people are going to be processing with the shroud of Christ buried in the tomb and bombs are going to be falling all around them," he said. "It makes me very sad and distressed."

Pub Date: 4/10/99