Praying Behind Barbed Wire

Serbian Orthodox nuns live out their calling in Kosovo

by Joost van Egmond

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“It doesn’t matter much to me. I just want to live here,” says Sister Anastasija, standing outside the Gorioc Monastery, which is located outside Kosovo’s northwestern town of Istok. The 25-year-old Orthodox nun points through the barbed-wire fence enclosing the property to a vista of the snow-covered valley below. “It’s hard,” she says, glancing at the fence. “But beauty is where the suffering is.”

The new recruit entered the monastery in August 2010. She refers to the area as Metohija Valley, its Serbian name, still unaware that locals, most of whom are Albanian Kosovars, consider the term a provocative reminder of past Serbian oppression. They prefer to call it by its Albanian name, the Dukagjin Valley. This seemingly minor discrepancy epitomizes the tightrope the young nun walks in her new life in Kosovo.

With four other women, she is striving to do something not only radical, but almost impossible: to live a life of prayer and peace in a wounded corner of world that has been torn apart by conflict and ethnic strife.

Gorioc Monastery traces its origins to the 14th-century Serbian king, Stephen Uros III of Decani. The eldest son of King Stephen Uros II Milutin, he was the throne’s heir apparent from birth. But after his father remarried, the family feuded over whom should succeed the king. In 1314, the king sent his son to prison in Constantinople, where he was to be blinded.

According to tradition, the pious prince entrusted his fate to God. When he arrived in Constantinople, the guards poked his eyes with a red-hot metal rod and placed him in a cell. That night, St. Nicholas appeared to him in a dream and told him not to fear, for he held the prince’s eyes in his hands.

Five years later, the aging king wished to make amends with his son and summoned him back to Serbia. The night before leaving Constantinople, St. Nicholas appeared again in a dream, this time holding before him the prince’s eyes. When he awoke in the morning, his eyesight was restored miraculously.

Three years later, his father died and Stephen Uros III was crowned king of Serbia. As a gesture of gratitude, he established a church and monastery at Gorioc dedicated to St. Nicholas.

The monastery stands as a testament to Serbia’s cultural and historic presence in this region of Kosovo. A placard hangs over the entrance declaring it a Serbian national monument protected by the Ministry of Culture of Serbia. Though in reality, all the government can do is offer financial assistance; Serbian authority ends dozens of miles away at the border. For all intents and purposes, the area falls within Kosovar jurisdiction.

In the 1990’s, Albanian Kosovars rebelled against repressive Serbian rule. The conflict culminated in the 1999 NATO intervention, which drove out Serbian authorities and paved the way for Kosovar independence. Over the subsequent decade, many ethnic Serbs left their ancestral homes in Kosovo.

Having chosen the cloistered life, the five nuns at Gorioc keep to themselves, following a strict daily routine of prayer and work. All born and raised in Serbia, they speak Serbian. They pray up to three hours at a stretch. With the remainder of the day, they weave wool bags, which are sold to tourists in the gift shop in the church on the monastery’s grounds.

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Tags: Sisters Monastery Albania Serbian Orthodox Church Serbia