More articles on the shelling of St. Athanasius at Lesok (Leshok)
- [Orthodox Christian News Service, Inc.]
Published in The New York Times, August 22, 2001
Explosion Wrecks a 14th-Century Monastery
By Ian Fisher
SKOPJE, Macedonia, August 21, 2001 (NYT) -- An explosion today ripped apart a
14th-century monastery, one of the most revered Orthodox buildings in Macedonia,
even as NATO officials maintained that the cease-fire here was generally holding.
In six months of low-level ethnic war, this is one of the few attacks on a
religious building. Neither the Macedonian Slavs, who are Orthodox, nor the
ethnic Albanians, who are Muslim, have made religion an overt part of the
Today each side blamed the other, in an attack that seemed, both by the target
and the timing, aimed at inflaming passions.
The explosion occurred just a week after the Macedonian majority and ethnic
Albanians signed a peace deal ã and on the very morning that NATO military
officials in Brussels recommended sending the full force of 3,500 troops to
collect weapons from ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
In strong language, the Macedonian government blamed the guerrillas for the
attack on the monastery, St. Atanasie and the Holy Virgin in the village of
Lesok in the northwest, saying that the Albanian guerrillas wanted to provoke an
attack that might also take down the entire peace deal.
"This just confirms the anti- historical mental makeup of the Albanian
terrorists and historically locates them in the period of savages when simply
nothing sacred existed," read a statement from the interior ministry.
But an area commander with the guerrillas, the National Liberation Army, said he
believed that it was government soldiers who carried out the attack.
"If this were a war against monasteries, it would have happened earlier," said
the commander, known by the nickname Leka. "We assume it could be people from
the government who do not want a peace agreement, who do not want peace."
While not ruling out that government soldiers destroyed the monastery, several
Western officials said that seemed unlikely given its significance to Orthodox
Macedonians. The compound's oldest part, a church, was built starting in 1335,
and the monastery itself is celebrated in Macedonian folk songs as a place of
Christian resistance to the Ottoman Empire.
Both NATO and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, which is
monitoring the conflict here, denounced the attack sharply.
"This was a senseless and outrageous act that serves no purpose," said Maj.
Barry Johnson, a NATO spokesman. "This type of extremist activity will only
undermine the peace process."
The village of Lesok is in an area where there has been heavy fighting, just to
the northeast of Tetovo, the nation's second largest city. The government and
rebels have repeatedly exchanged gun and artillery fire in the area, as recently
as Monday night.
NATO officials have said that the cease-fire must be "durable" before sending in
the full force of 3,500 troops. In recent days, they have said that they do not
expect complete peace before their troops' arrival, noting the fighting has
calmed considerably since the deal was signed.
Published by The Keston Institute, August 22, 2001
Church in Lesek blown up
By Branko Bjelajac Keston News Service
August 22, 2001 (KNS) -- The Church of St. Athanasius, in the Macedonian
Orthodox Church Monastery complex at Lesok (Leshok) village, 8 km from the city
of Tetovo, was destroyed by a large amount of explosives at 03.10 am on 21
August 2001. Macedonian officials are blaming Albanian extremists for this
incident, but representatives of the rebel forces are denying any connection.
The OSCE mission and the NATO Secretary-General have both condemned the
destruction of this religious site. There were no casualties, but the material
damage is incalculable, says Oliver Sambevski, press officer to the Macedonian
Ministry of Culture.
After the evacuation of all Leshek village's population recently because of
intensive military operations in the vicinity, the only inhabitants of the
monastery were several priests serving at the Diocesan office of Polog and
Kumanovo, which is situated in the Leshok Monastery. Archpriest Mirko Stankovski
of the Tetovo Diocesan office said that 'The Church of St. Athanasius was built
in 1924 and dedicated in 1936... it is situated in the ancient sanctuary from
the 13th century and is protected by the Monuments Protection Law.'
The Macedonian Ministry of Interior accused Albanian extremists, the called NLA
(National Liberation Army), of destroying the entry gate, the central cupola and
the iconostasis to the monastery church of St. Athanasius.
However, representatives of the NLA stated that they did not destroy the church.
KosovaLive agency reported on 21st August that an NLA commander said that 'they
still have no precise information regarding the destruction of Leshak
Monastery', but that their troops took 'extra measures' in preserving religious sites.
The explosion ruined the church building, destroyed several valuable icons and
frescoes, the wood-carved altar, and severely damaged the tombstone of Kiril
Pejcinovik, a 19th century Macedonian educator and enlighter. The site was
visited by an OSCE team of observers immediately after the incident.
'This Monastery is precious to us for several reasons,' says Oliver Sambevski,
the Macedonian Ministry of Culture press officer told Keston News Service on
22nd August from Skopje. 'One of them is that the site is recognised and
registered as the Culture Monument, and another for its architectural beauty. It
is also a cultural centre serving as a reminder of the early educational work in
Macedonia that brought the European spirit to us in 18 century. The Monastery
complex is consisted of several church buildings, a small museum and other
objects. The monastery is not active, but it serves at the Diocesan office to
the Metropolitan Kiril. His staff left the Monastery only ten days ago, after
they were intimidated and threatened. This is a great tragedy to Macedonian culture.'
In a brief press statement, George Robertson, NATO Secretary-General condemned
the church destruction: 'Attacks on places of worship are totally unacceptable
and undermine the efforts of all those who are striving to restore peace and stability.'
Ganka Samoilovska Cvetanova, Minister of Culture of Macedonia wrote on 21st
August to diplomats in Macedonia, EU ministers of culture, UNESCO and the
Council of Europe asking them to: 'devote all your authority and influence to
not tolerate future desecration... Be aware that the destruction of the
monuments of culture does not represent an attack on a specific nation, it is an
attack on the all-embracing conscience of the humankind.'
The Leshok Monastery complex is at the south-east lower side of the Shar
mountain, close to military operations 8 km from Tetovo. It was founded in 13
century and rebuilt in 1818, when it became a cultural and educational centre
for the whole of Macedonia. In a press statement issued regarding the church
destruction the Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia Stefan stressed: 'I would like
to ask whether this act is directed against the religion in this region and the
Macedonian Orthodox population, against the Macedonian state or maybe against
the recently signed Framework Agreements and the efforts to bring back peace in
It is possible that the perpetrators selected for destruction the most recently
built church in the Monastery complex in an attempt to draw the international
communities attention, and to stress that other, much older and more valuable
buildings nearby are also a possible target.
Distributed by the Russian Orthodox Church, August 23, 2001
Announcement of the Communication Service of the Department for External Church
Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate in connection with the destruction of the
Church in the Leshok village in Macedonia
MOSCOW, August 23, 2001 (ROC) -- The Orthodox Church of St. Afanasy in the
Leshok village near the Macedonian town of Tetovo was barbarously destroyed by
the terrorists. The church was a part of the unique architectural and historic
complex of the monastery of the XIII century.
This act of impudent vandalism and bold challenge to the international community
is continuation of the terrorist aggression in Kosovo, where, in spite of the
presence of the authorities, which had taken responsibilities on the control
after preserving peace and order in the country, more than hundred Orthodox
churches were destroyed. Today the destruction of the Orthodox shrines takes
place in the neighbouring to Kosovo Macedonia.
As far back as 1999, at the beginning of the bombardment of Yugoslavia, the
Moscow Patriarchate urged to cease hostilities against the country, justly
indicating that it would not result in settlement of the conflict and would not
lead to the achievement of peace, but would arouse escalation of the conflict.
At the same time our Church has condemned and is condemning the illegal actions
of any military groups directed against life and property of the Balkan
inhabitants of any nationality. Today we are witnesses to a full-scale expansion
of terrorism and extremism in the region.
Terrorist violence should meet a united repulse of the international community.
Political interests can`t justify the direct or circumstantial support of
extremist powers guilty in death of peaceful inhabitants and in destruction of
Deeply co-suffering with the Orthodox faithful of Macedonia and all the people
of this country, the Russian Orthodox Church prays for restoration of peaceful
life in the Balkans.