Orthodox Christian faithful across North America were especially gratified to see a number of Orthodox leaders accompany the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Belgrade, Yugoslavia during the last week of April.
The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer for the Orthodox Church in America, was among the Orthodox clerics who, together with the Rev. Jackson and Dr Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary of the New York-based National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA [NCCCUSA], won the release of three US soldiers - Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez, Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone, and Specialist Steven Gonzales - from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. His Grace, Bishop Mitrophan of the Serbian Orthodox Church of the US and Canada; His Grace, Dimitrios (Couchell) of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; and the Rev. Irenej Dobrijevic, a Serbian Orthodox priest from Cleveland, OH, also formed part of the delegation of religious leaders intent on emphasizing the important role the religious community should play in ending the Balkan conflict. Other members of the delegation represented the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish communities.
“We are quite pleased that Father Kishkovsky has been invited to participate in the delegation of religious leaders led by Rev. Jackson,” His Beatitude, Metropolitan THEODOSIUS, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, remarked upon learning that Father Kishkovsky was invited to participate in the mission. “His participation, as well as that of the other Orthodox and non-Orthodox representatives, underscores the important role the religious community can play and opens possibilities for finding new solutions to this serious situation.”
An outspoken critic of the Milosevic presidency, Metropolitan THEODOSIUS has issued several statements calling for an end to NATO air raids and a just resolution that recognizes the rights of all parties in the conflict.
The delegation to Belgrade sought the release of the three US soldiers and sought to show solidarity both with the people suffering in Kosovo and in the regions refugee camps and with the innocent people suffering death and destruction under NATO bombings.
Father Kishkovsky accompanied the Rev. Jackson and three other members of the delegation in the decisive meeting with President Milosevic on Saturday, May 1. About an hour after they concluded their three-hour meeting with Mr Milosevic, the Rev. Jackson received word that the POWs would be released.
According to Father Kishkovsky, the sudden success of their mission left members of the delegation “breathless but exultant.”
“It was a joyous moment, and one that we in all truth have to identify with our religious commitment and faith,” Father Kishkovsky said, adding that immediately before their meeting with Mr Milosevic lesser Yugoslav officials told the delegation that there was no hope of winning the POWs freedom. “We went in as a venture of faith without much relative chance of success…. It was quite a roller coaster!”
Father Kishkovsky noted that the sudden reversal indicated that Milosevic’s opinion is supreme in Belgrade. “Everything depended on our conversation with Milosevic,” he said. “In our conversations with other officials, we were getting a grim picture of no flexibility. We thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel, just the lights of an approaching train.”
The meeting with Milosevic was not the first for Father Kishkovsky, who is no stranger to international missions. During the dissolving of Yugoslavia, he had met the Yugoslav President on at least three occasions. He called Milosevic “as articulate and forceful” as in the past, but said that he showed signs of stress.
“He was tough, and yet there was an undertone of flexibility,” Father Kishkovsky said. “He showed a political rigidity but a human flexibility.”
At one point during the meeting, President Milosevic denounced US news media for transmitting a distorted and biased version of the Kosovo crisis and for poisoning public opinion. “I assured him that many people in all our communities have access to other sources of information and evidence, and it leads them to be convinced that terrible things are happening in Kosovo,” Father Kishkovsky told Milosevic.
Political and diplomatic negotiations with Milosevic were avoided by the Rev. Jackson and other members of the mission, who addressed the Yugoslav leader exclusively on “moral and religious grounds.” Father Kishkovsky reported that they spoke frankly about what the immediate future might hold for Milosevic and his country. “We told him that we were concerned about all the people who are suffering… but our perception was that things would get worse,” he added.
Father Kishkovsky observed that President Milosevic seemed to take seriously the delegations warning that NATO and the US are committed to a prolonged bombing campaign. “We did make the point that the military logic is inexorable, and there, I believe, Mr. Milosevic was listening intently. He appeared to understand that the delegation did not represent a signal of change in NATO or US policy, and I think he clearly perceived that we were there on our own, neither discouraged nor encouraged by the US government, but nevertheless not hostile to our government.”
“During the meeting, it was emphasized to President Milosevic that the release of the POWs, while an important gesture, in and of itself would not change very much,” Father Kishkovsky continued. “He was told that, if the release served as a symbol that violence in Kosovo would cease, that refugees would be permitted to return safely to their homes, and that an international force will be present in Kosovo, then its an opening toward a peaceful solution…. Within hours, we received word that the POWs would be freed.”
While grateful for Milosevic’s surprising decision to release the servicemen, Father Kishkovsky said Milosevic’s decision was probably based on a “hard-headed calculation” of his self-interest. “He probably played a card which was available to him,” he said. “Our hope is that there will now be movement on his part and on NATO’s part.”
On the eve of their meeting with President Milosevic, members of the Jackson delegation visited His Holiness, Patriarch PAVLE of Serbia, for years an outspoken critic of the Milosevic regime. Father Kishkovsky noted that, while the meeting with the Patriarch proved to be a “huge media event in Yugoslavia,” it had received little or no coverage in the western media.
“Part of the goal of our trip was to give visibility to the presence, in that situation, of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the other religious communities,” Father Kishkovsky explained. “The Serbian Church has taken an extremely responsible stance during these months and years. They have called for peace and they have opposed various policies of the Yugoslav government. While in Belgrade, we learned that the Church had already called for the release of the POWS.”
During their brief visit to Belgrade, the delegation also met with the speaker of the Parliament and other religious leaders. Father Kishkovsky, together with Bishop Dimitrios, also visited the Belgrade office of the US-based International Orthodox Christian Charities [IOCC], the only US humanitarian agency that has remained in the Yugoslavia. IOCC recently stepped up relief efforts, offering assistance to all refugees regardless of religious or ethnic background. In addition to coordinating efforts with the Serbian Church, IOCC recently intensified aid to the Orthodox Church of Albania in its efforts to deal with the influx of refugees flooding into Albania.
In addition to his duties as a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and as pastor of Our Lady of Kazan Church, Sea Cliff, NY, Father Kishkovsky served as President of the NCCCUSA from 1990 to 1991. Among his present activities, he serves as a member of the US Department of State Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, President of the Research Center for Religion and Human Rights in Closed Societies, a trustee of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and a member of the IOCC board. In 1997 he facilitated a meeting between Vinko Cardinal Puljic of Sarajevo and Patriarch PAVLE at the World Conference on Religion and Peace Mission to Serbia and participated in the US Institute of Peace Conference on Bosnia held in Budapest, Hungary.