Part. Of. The. Story. In. Kosovo.

The dictionary says what it says.


Main Entry: bal-kan-ize …
Inflected Form(s): bal-kan-ized; bal-kan-iz-ing …
Etymology: Balkan Peninsula …
1: to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units

Obviously, this word exists for a reason.

Anyone who knows anything about the Balkans knows that the ethnic and religious conflicts in that region are complex beyond belief, with roots that dig deep into centuries of bloody earth. The question is how journalists can describe these conflicts in language that can be understood in daily news accounts (or on the Daily Show, for that matter). How much context is enough?

Obviously, I bring this up because of the waves of headlines coming out of the Balkans right now linked to the declaration of independence in Kosovo. Obviously, before others click “comment” to note this, I should also say that I am an Orthodox Christian.

Here is my question: What do readers need to know in order to understand the emotions that are currently being unleashed in Serbia and in Kosovo, especially in northern Kosovo?

I have found myself thinking about the late A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times. Here is my attempt, in a 1999 Scripps Howard column, to put one powerful Rosenthal remark into some historical context. The crisis mentioned in this text is, of course, linked to the hellish regime of the Communist thug Slobodan Milosevic.

The roots of this crisis are astonishingly complex, ancient and bloody. … In 1389, Serbian armies fought — virtually to the death — while losing the Battle of Kosovo, but managed to stop the Ottoman Empire from reaching into Europe. The Kosovo Plain became holy ground.

Leap ahead to World War II, when Nazi Germany tried to use Albanian Muslims and Catholic Croats to crush the Serbs. Then Communists — such as Milosevic — took over. In the mid-1990s, the United States all but encouraged Croat efforts to purge Serbs from Krajina, where they had lived for 500 years. The West has been silent as Turkey expelled waves of Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Since morphing from Communist to nationalist, Milosevic has skillfully used Serbia’s array of fears, hatreds and resentments to justify terror in Kosovo and elsewhere by his paramilitary and police units. The Serbian strongman knows that Kosovo contains 1,300 churches and monasteries, many of them irreplaceable historic sites.

Retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe, put it this way: “I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”

dcidjakovica8For legions of Serbs the ultimate problem centers on those 1,300 churches and monasteries and the graveyards attached to them. We are dealing with haunted and holy ground.

A newspaper reader has to look long and hard to find out anything about this side of the story. The Times does include this material in the background section of the main story:

In the 1980s, Mr. Milosevic used Serbs’ enormous sense of grievance that their ancestral heartland was now dominated by Muslim Albanians to come to power in Serbia. By 1989, he had abolished Kosovo’s autonomy, fired tens of thousands of Albanians from their jobs, suppressed Albanian language education and controlled the territory with a heavy police presence.

Ten years ago, Mr. Milosevic’s forces moved against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, killing a guerrilla leader and his family at their compound. As violence escalated, NATO intervened in a 1999 bombing campaign, causing hundreds of thousands of Albanians and Serbs to flee. An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed in the 1998-99 conflict, many of them Albanians, while 1,500 Serbs died in revenge killings that followed.

That’s essential information. But that is just part of the context for the emotional scenes we are seeing in the Balkans right now.

The Washington Post story, to its credit, goes much further and, near the top, mentions the specifics.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his country, which regards Kosovo as the cradle of its civilization and home to some of its most treasured Orthodox churches and monasteries, would never recognize the unilateral declaration.

“For as long as the Serbian nation exists, Kosovo will remain Serbia,” Kostunica said in a nationally televised address from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. “We do not recognize the forced creation of a state within our territory.”

That states the issue in broad terms. Later, reporter Peter Finn hits us with one specific detail, to balance a number of telling anecdotes about the joy felt by the Albanians:

The NATO troops that moved into Kosovo after 78 days of airstrikes have since become guards around sealed Serb enclaves, home to 120,000 people. At a Serb monastery in Pec, called Peja by ethnic Albanians, Italian troops protect the holy site, which is surrounded by a massive new wall to shield elderly nuns from stone-throwing and other abuse by passing ethnic Albanians.

“We don’t have eye contact with them anymore, so things are better,” said one Serb woman at the church, who declined to give her name.

dcidolacThere are horrors on both sides. Treasures have been destroyed on both sides. Yes, on both sides.

The question is whether readers here in the United States have any idea why this issue is not going to go away, why northern Kosovo matters so much to its Orthodox minority. Can people live in peace under current conditions?

Look at it this way. Humanitarians around the world screamed in outrage — with good reason — when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. These statues were, literally, irreplaceable.

Now, click here and tour some of the destruction in Kosovo. Yes, this is a one-sided, pro-Serbia site. But just think of this in terms of art and history — like the Bamiyan Buddhas. These holy places are also irreplaceable.

Again let me state that these Serbian church websites documenting the destruction tell only part of the hellish story that is post-war Kosovo and Serbia. Of course. But the destruction goes on and the churches and the monasteries cannot be replaced. That is part of the story.

Search the news reports in the next few days and look for the material on these treasures of art and faith. While many are celebrating, others are — sheltered in tiny enclaves protected by foreign troops — in mourning. Are there enougn troops to guard all the churches in northern Kosovo? Does anyone in Europe care? How about the United States? This is part of the Kosovo equation that should be included in balanced, accurate mainstream reporting.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MattK

    What do readers need to know?

    That the conflict isn’t ethnic, it is religious. I just read three stories about the declaration this morning and none of them mentioned religion. They only mentioned “ethnic serbs” and “ethnic albanians”. That seems to me to be language designed to keep people from taking sides. How many Serbs are in America? Not many. But change “ethnic Serb” to Christian and that might change American foreign policy.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a Catholic, I was very much against our getting involved in the Balkan situation. Considering how militant Islam seems determined to destroy both Christian and secular world-views, for Clinton to drag us into this war with the goal of destroying a Christian country on behalf of Moslem conquests of the past, struck me as obscene. In Boston, supposedly the American anti-war capital, I joined in an anti-war protest (it was clearly not a just war as far as our participation). Yet the only people there were Serbian Orthodox Christians and a few Catholics. Where were all the anti-war Yahoos who later went spastic over Bush and the war in Iraq?? (where a serious case can be made that our interests very much appeared at stake).

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    And tmatt–you don’t really expect the American secular MSM to give a rat’s a** about what happens to Christian people and Christian art around the world, do you? Especially if it involves those esoteric Christians known as Orthodox. However, for all the friction between Western RCs and Eastern Orthodox, I know there is a great concern among serious Catholics for what is being done to our Eastern brothers and sisters and their great Christian cultural heritage. I know many Orthodox will find it hard to believe, but for many Catholics the pain of our Eastern brethren is also our pain — even if our government sides with Moslem extremists(as both Bush and Clinton have on the issue of destroying and dismantling Christian Serbia.)

    I hope all those Americans who are in favor of fracturing Serbia will be consistent when Mexican and other Hispanics in the Southwest become a majority and want to fracture the United States and make California, New Mexico, and Arizona part of Mexico.

  • Stephen A.

    I second Deacon John’s comments.

    I was truly outraged when I learned of this “instant nation” being created yesterday, as outraged as I was in 1999 with Clinton’s illegal, immoral war on Serbia on behalf of Muslim terrorist/drug smugglers seeking a “Greater Albania.”

    Interestingly, searching around yesterday, I found the same video and the same sites Terry did (This one was particularly pointed, since it notes which NATO nation’s troops were standing by while the Albanians knocked down many of the 150 churches in the past decade.

    Considering the US and NATO troops have helped facilitate the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo of 250,000 Serbs since 1999, the media have been remarkably quiet about this declaration – just a short line about “A new nation in the world” and that the Russians – “for some reason” – are upset about it. Could it be because their fellow Orthodox Christians are being thrown off their ancestral lands?

    In the 1990s, Milosovic was no saint. Serb units in Croatia and Kosovo were definitely guilty of atrocities and brutality in trying to put down dissent as Yugoslavia was falling apart. But as Terry noted, history there is complex on BOTH sides, and the MSM were horribly one-sided in their reporting during the lead-up to the Kosovo War and during it, and that bias exists today as well.

    A new, radical Muslim state within Europe should scare everyone, but thanks to Clinton’s war, and Bush’s seemingly UNENDING supply of naivete about “democracy,” that’s just what Europe has got. I wonder if some Christians will now wake up to what has really gone on.

  • tmatt

    Stephen A:

    Let’s be clear. Milosovic was a demon in human flesh.

    But let’s also remember that A VARIETY of religious leaders called for a peace fire in the hostilities there, which the West ignored.

    Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox… to be precise. I wrote at the time:

    It’s tricky for anyone to sign a document in Belgrade these days with the word “peace” in the title.

    But back on April 19th, while air-raid sirens screamed overhead, an interfaith quartet of shepherds released a gripping statement to their Yugoslavian flocks and to the world.

    “Even as evil cannot be overcome by evil, so peace and harmony cannot be attained by war,” said the seven-paragraph “Appeal for Peace,” released from the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. “To be a peacemaker is the greatest duty and most noble obligation of every man. That is why we are not afraid to be the first to extend the hand of peace to one another. In the name of our future and our common life together, we pray to God and appeal to all men of good will to endeavor with maximum effort to end this war and resolve the problems by peaceful means.”

    The document was signed by Serbian Patriarch Pavle, Catholic Archbishop Franc Perko, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic and Rabbi Isak Asiel, all of Belgrade. Together, they called for all bombing and fighting to cease and for the return of refugees to their war-ravaged homes – both the ethnic Albanians fleeing the paramilitary units of Slobodan Milosevic or Serbs fleeing the Kosovo Liberation Army.

    This cry for broader negotiations in the Balkans followed a “Kosovo Peace and Tolerance” declaration released on March 18 in Vienna. This longer, more detailed document was signed by a quartet of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish leaders from Kosovo.

    Officials in NATO alliance should have the highest possible motivations to support coalitions seeking common ground in the Balkans, said Father Irinej Dobrijevic of Cleveland, who accompanied the Rev. Jesse Jackson during his unofficial mission to Belgrade, leading to the release of three American prisoners of war.

    If so, ignoring the Vienna and Belgrade interfaith statements represented “major missed opportunities to support those who wanted to promote democracy” and defeat Milosevic, who is a holdover from the Communist era, said Dobrijevic, during a Capitol Hill forum this week focusing on Kosovo, sponsored by the conservative National Clergy Council. “We missed the boat when we failed to listen to these kinds of mainstream, moderate religious and intellectual leaders.”

    The panel of clergy and scholars addressed the question “Does might make right?”, probing Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant teachings on war and how they might apply to the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia. The forum covered territory from St. Augustine’s “City of God” to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the failed Paris accords, with many stops in between. Some argued that this war is unjust, or even evil, while others said its humanitarian goals were just, but questioned NATO strategies. Everyone agreed that it’s hard to evaluate whether a military effort is morally justified when no one can agree on its goal. Was this a war to protect ethnic Albanians, topple Milosevic or cut Kosovo out of Yugoslavia?

    Whatever happens next, it’s hard to imagine anyone traveling the road to peace without the help of religious leaders in Yugoslavia – the very voices that Milosevic has attempted to silence and that Western diplomats and media have consistently ignored.

    This was perfectly symbolized when Orthodox Bishop Artemije of Kosovo stood knee-deep in the snow outside the chateau at Rambouillet — locked out of the tense negotiations between leaders of NATO, the KLA and the Milosevic government. The most radical elements of the Serbian regime have even labeled Artemije a traitor to his country, due to his years of activism on behalf of all refugees and his efforts to force a new government in Belgrade, including five U.S. trips in a year before the bombing began.

    “The greatest victim of your NATO bombs is not what is demolished and broken or killed and wounded (however great that number may be), but rather something which you stopped from developing,” the bishop of Kosovo later wrote, in a letter to Western leaders.

    “Before your bombs, democratic forces existed here, open and with potential; there existed a democratic process, however embryonic. There existed a hope with these people, that with your support the process of democratization would come to life and prevail. All of that is gone now.”

  • Harris

    Some part of the lack of concern must be allocated to the atrocities of the earlier Balkan wars, and the list of Serb-sponsored horrors from Vukovar to Srebenica. Those familiar with the Bible or simply with history know that those who live by violence typically go the way of violence — and few mourn. For good reason.

  • Stephen A.

    “These are not conventional negotiations. The threat of NATO air strikes remains real.” — U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Feb. 14, 1999, to Serbs in Rambouillet, France during treaty negotiations.

    “The expression of a State’s consent to be bound by a treaty which has been procured by the coercion of its representative through acts or threats directed against him shall be without any legal effect; A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.” — The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, (Article 51, 52)

    “Well, I always said that the statute of limitations on war crimes does not run out..” Former Sec. of State Albright in June 28, 2001 interview

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  • Randy McDonald

    “A new, radical Muslim state within Europe should scare everyone, but thanks to Clinton’s war, and Bush’s seemingly UNENDING supply of naivete about “democracy,” that’s just what Europe has got.”

    You know, right, that Kosovar Albanians are actually pretty secular and are about as Muslim as your average western European is Christian?

  • Randy McDonald

    Deacon Bresnahan:

    “I hope all those Americans who are in favor of fracturing Serbia will be consistent when Mexican and other Hispanics in the Southwest become a majority and want to fracture the United States and make California, New Mexico, and Arizona part of Mexico.”

    As best as one can tell from the scant data, by the beginning of the 20th century Kosovo was almost two-thirds Albanian by population, with a lesser Albanian majority dating to an earlier time. Perhaps surprisingly, the various atrocities of the early 20th century didn’t make much impact on the population ratio. It wasn’t until the late 20th century, when Serbs went through the demographic transition much more quickly than Albanians, that the ratio began to shift sharply in the Albanians’ favour.

  • tmatt

    I am starting to spike comments that are not reacting either to the content of the post or the religion-angle of the actual coverage.

    The question again: Should coverage be mentioning — as an attempt at balance — the destruction of the churches in Kosovo?

  • Randy McDonald

    “Should coverage be mentioning — as an attempt at balance — the destruction of the churches in Kosovo?”

    Hasn’t it been doing that pretty extensively? Much of the news coverage I’ve been reading on line mentions how the Kosovar Serbs have been forced to seclude themselves in separate communities under their own administration since the 1999 war owing to sustained Albanian hostility, many of these also mentioning the issue of the Orthodox Church’s various properties.

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  • tmatt


    Sorry, we are discussing mainstream media coverage. That’s the whole point of this weblog.

  • Dennis Colby

    Sure, the coverage should mention it, but to regard this as primarily or exclusively an issue about religion – as some commenters here clearly do – is a mistake. The Serb protesters are singing nationalist songs and waving Russian flags while demonstrating in front of cathedrals – religion and national identity are mixed here in a way that makes them impossible to separate.

    Also, bear in mind that for American readers, anything in the former Yugoslavia is going to be seen through the prism of the 1990s, and the slaughter carried out in Bosnia by the Serbs and the Croats. Part of the effort in covering Kosovo’s independence, it seems to me, is bringing readers and audiences up to speed on what’s happened since 1996.

  • Mark

    This is a profoundly grievous development, and YES, the media SHOULD be following the continuing devastation of a traditionally Christian culture by a rising Islamic(albeit secular) state.

    Media question: Have any of the US presidential candidates been interviewed on these points? If not, the press is missing an opportunity to pose some difficult and profoundly important questions.

    This is a debacle of the highest order, orchestrated during both the Clinton and Bush admins. I can’t imagine either Senator Clinton or Senator McCain having anything interesting to say about all of this. I’m no fan of Sen. Obama, but this could be a fascinating opportunity for him to surprise the press (and his critics) by offering a thoughtful critique of past misdeeds and a positive proposal for dealing constructively (and compassionately) with the Serbs.

    If the press were to pose the right questions to the candidates, this could be a very interesting new angle for election coverage.

  • Will

    A better comparison would be “than Texans are to give up the Alamo.” Doesn’t anyone read BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON?

    The quirk that particularly bothered me was the claim that the Bosnian conflict was bewtween “ethnic Serbs” and “Muslims”. Aren’t the “Muslims” just as much “ethnic Serbs” as anyone else?

  • Gasa

    “You know, right, that Kosovar Albanians are actually pretty secular and are about as Muslim as your average western European is Christian?”

    I second that. The vast majority of Kosovar Albanians are very secular when it comes to the Muslim religion. And MattK, to say that the center of the conflict is religion is somewhat absurd. That is one of the minor factors if a factor at all. Kosovar Albanians have not/are not burning and destroying Christian Orthodox churches to send a message to the Orthodox world that Kosovo does not like that religion, but they are burning anything that symbolizes the Serbian interference with the Kosvar Albanian population and their way of life. After all the more than 10,000 people killed for basically nothing cannot be forgotten that easy. So, the focus should not be centered around religion. The focus should be centered at the fact that Kosovo won its independence and which of the countries is willing to recognize it as a state.

  • Stephen A.

    You know, right, that Kosovar Albanians are actually pretty secular and are about as Muslim as your average western European is Christian?

    Well, secular Muslims, as a rule, don’t destroy hundreds of Orthodox churches as they cleanse the region of their enemies. That’s not a “secular” response. (See video, above. Although the seemingly Nazi-esque salute of the man tearing the cross down is ‘secular’ I suppose.)

    I have to say that other than a brief one-liner about the “new Nation” I’ve seen – in the broadcast media, at least – very little about the religious impact of the independence and what the 1999-2008 period has done to the religious heritage of the region.

    In the print media, simliar is true, although the anger of the Russians is stressed a *bit* more. But mostly stilted, slanted notations about how bad Milosovic was (we get it!) dominates any ‘backgrounders’ they are bothering to put out.

    Religion is DEFINITELY part of this story. Perhaps at the heart of it, at least for one side. I don’t see how one could deny it. Even if one side is concerned with the religious impact of these events (Serbs) it deserves to be explored as a factor.

  • Peggy

    The Daily Mail in the UK has some Q&A at the end of an article. Q&A don’t go back before the 1990s. It seems somewhat helpful to me.

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  • Julia

    The situation seems similar to Northern Ireland. It’s not the religious issue per se that is the problem. Religious affiliation is a marker of links to an ancient enemy.

    The Albanian Muslims were part of the Ottoman overlord structure in the Balkans just as the Protestants in Northern Ireland were seen as usurpers and connected to the hated English overlords who had stolen Irish land.

    The Albanians were originally Christian – 1st century AD, in fact.

    The Serbs believe that the Albanians who didn’t flee from the Ottomans stayed behind, converted to Islam and cooperated with the Ottomans in return for land and privileged status over the rest of the Balkan peoples. To the Serbs, the Albanians sold out their Christian Balkan brothers and helped the Ottomans run roughshod over them.

    Here’s a timeline.

    See also:

  • Randy McDonald

    “This is a profoundly grievous development, and YES, the media SHOULD be following the continuing devastation of a traditionally Christian culture by a rising Islamic(albeit secular) state.”

    What do you intend “Islamic” to mean? Independent Kosovo isn’t going to become an Islamic republic, since that would be barred by any number of factors including the secular lifestyles of the average Kosovar to the fairly extensive international involvement in Kosovo’s development.

    “Well, secular Muslims, as a rule, don’t destroy hundreds of Orthodox churches as they cleanse the region of their enemies. That’s not a “secular” response.”

    The churches aren’t being destroyed because they are Orthodox but they are being destroyed because they are Serb churches. Secular Muslims would do that kind of thing to the institutions of their enemy if they were driven by a secular nationalism, in the same way of secular Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or name your own religion.

    One religion-related story in the former Yugoslavia would relate to the use of religion by all combatants as a way to mobilize domestic and foreign supporters while excusing any number of very dodgy actions. (As I said above, an archbishop who calls on his homeland to import advanced weapons systems as a prelude to reclaiming its ancient heartland is … something.)

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  • Mark V.

    I think that the media coverage running up to the war did not mention Kosovar violence that allowed Milosevic to become an nationalistic tyrant. The New York Times article this weekend mentioned Kosovar dominance of the European sexual slave rings, but did not say anything about the KLA’s major herion and drug running before the war. Moreover, the U.S. media had scant coverage of the destruction of ancient Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo while NATO refused to protect these treasures. I guess it looks bad when the side we supported turns out to be a gang of terrorists, pimps, and drug dealers. Finally, a recent television news report on the Kosovar economy mentioned lignite deposits that can be mined to jumpstart the economy. Several years ago, many Serbian-Americans were worried that the Bush administration would support Kosovar independence in order to get sweetheart deals for the natural resources in this territory – concerns that echoed the Iraq War.

  • Randy McDonal


    “I guess it looks bad when the side we supported turns out to be a gang of terrorists, pimps, and drug dealers.”

    All two million or so Kosovar Albanians? Wow.

    One might as well say that, because of the popularity of Milosevic and his policies for a decade, along with the prominent role of figures like the Arkan-Ceca duo and the multiple assassinations of prominent Serbian politicians, that all of the seven million Serbs of Serbia are blood-thirsty ethnic cleansers who are so degenerate as to willingly massacre their own politicians.

  • Anthony Verreos

    In an uncivilized world in which for most of recorded time
    the vast majority of people have been uneducated, the
    place of major religions has been a dominant force in prople’s daily lives, survival, political actions, empire building, and eventual wars to regain independence. It’s rather pointless to suggest that we continue to go back hundreds or thousands of years to sort out the various horrors that have been exchanged, or the justifications for them, yet that is exactly what rules the masses to this day!

    Look anywhere in the world where there is conflict now, and
    the dominant features of the people involved will not show
    us people with great self respect and dignity, people who
    are free from prejudice and discrimination, people who respect those who are different from themselves and their
    religious representations, people who love peace and fear

    The U.S. continues to make the same mistake in foreign polcy
    for the same reasons:
    a) We do not seek to thoroughly understand the problems we
    seek to resolve.
    b) We fail to intervene strictly for humanitarian reasons
    in the beginning of a conflict.
    c) We fail to use our influence to force other nations to
    take responsibility for fixing problems that their former
    empires and colonialization created.
    d) We choose to believe that down deep, everyone else is
    just like us, and they are all motivated by the same
    selfish interests that we are.

    From press coverage it’s easy to see why some people think
    the U.S. did the right thing in bombing Serbia, and in encouraging and now recognizing the Kosovo government. After all, we all heard the Kosovo President promise to protect the Serbian minority – didn’t we? I thought that
    was what I was hearing.

    I don’t know, but it may be the case that the majority of
    people on all sides just want to have peace, and actually
    do respect eachother, but history also shows that it is not
    the majority that causes problems, it’s always a minority of
    what the press likes to call radicals, extremists, terrorist, etc. A lot of damage has been done, and it is
    unlikely that this conflict will be resolved peacefully, not
    because it can’t be, but because for it to be, people on both sides must teach and reward respect, and punish those
    who instigate hate, violence, and desecration. Don’t hold
    your breath.

  • Mark V.


    I do not deny your reasoning. However, this website deals with the intersection of faith and media. It is quite clear that the American media has totally whitewashed the Kosovars’ sleaziness in order to portray them as some Balkan version of our Founding Fathers. We seem to be stuck in the cowboys vs. Indians mindset and cannot fathom the many gray areas in these trouble spots.

  • Carole Kealy

    No matter what our political beliefs, I find it hard to
    accept this revoulting act of tearing down a church
    what message is conveyed here?

    And why arent the media outlets in America covering this?

    I will make it a priority.
    carole K