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Yugoslavia: Church Looking For Apology From UNMIK Police

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo has asked for an apology from United Nations police for an incident at a monastery earlier this month in Gracanica, near the Kosovar capital, Pristina. Police held the 70-year-old prioress for several hours of questioning about marijuana they said was growing on monastery grounds. RFE/RL reports that the plants turned out to be wild hemp.

Prague, 14 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A campaign by United Nations police against marijuana cultivation in Kosovo has sparked a squabble with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Police from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, detained and questioned the prioress of Gracanica monastery near the Kosovar capital, Pristina, early this month. The church is seeking an apology.

The incident occurred after UNMIK authorities noticed that a field they had been using to land their helicopters included vegetation that appeared to be marijuana. The field belongs to the monastery.

UNMIK police spokesman Derek Chappell told RFE/RL that this is a common occurrence. "I'd just like to emphasize the fact that at this particular time of the year, there are marijuana plantations being found all over Kosovo. Many of them -- they're in Serbian and Albanian areas -- [do] not involve deliberate cultivation of this plant for unlawful purposes. We are mindful of that, and we are not prosecuting everybody. We are very understanding," Chappell said.

However, on the evening of 7 August, UNMIK police visited the Gracanica monastery and took 70-year-old Mother Efrosinia next door to police headquarters, where they questioned her for several hours. Father Sava Janjic, speaking for the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, said church leaders were incredulous. "Mother Efrosinia is one of the most respected spiritual persons, who is especially known for her simple and loving heart. And she's probably the last person who could be growing cannabis on her land," Janjic said.

Janjic said hemp is an herb growing wild all over Kosovo. The term "cannabis" is often used to describe plants cultivated for their leaves and flowers, which can be smoked. The same or similar plants grown for their tough fiber -- used to make cloth, rope, and paper -- often are called industrial hemp or "jute." The plants are cultivated in different ways and harvested at different times.

Janjic said: "Hemp is a plant here in Kosovo that poor people once raised in order to make clothes. So it still can be found in many Serb gardens today."

Janjic sid that, though Efrosinia was released and returned to the monastery, she was frightened and humiliated. He said the Church issued a statement but has been dissatisfied so far with the police response. "We mentioned in our public statement, which was authorized by the bishop, that they should make an apology, and I'm still not aware that they have made any. They just said, 'O.K., we actually.... It's wild-growing hemp and the case is closed,'" Janjic said.

The police and the church versions of the incident vary in some details. Janjic said police offended cloister rules by entering the building after dark. "The next day, the police bulletin noted that they actually found 100 square meters of cannabis. And it was actually [the day after that] that the chief of the police, Charles Weber, confirmed to the media that the cannabis that allegedly was found in the monastery garden was just wild-growing hemp," Janjic said.

In his account on behalf of the police, UNMIK spokesman Chappell makes no distinction between hemp and marijuana, although he conceded that the police harbor no further suspicions that marijuana is being harvested unlawfully at the monastery. He said, however, that police arrived at the cloister well before 8:30 p.m., as was stated in the Church version. "I mean, we certainly didn't take her out in the middle of the night. The time that is logged for this incident is 7 o'clock in the evening," Chappell said.

Janjic said the Serbian Orthodox Church -- preoccupied with widespread vandalism and legal difficulties in Kosovo -- wants to avoid magnifying the Gracanica incident. "We are not going to push this forward very much because, simply, we have so many other troubles and problems that we simply cannot concentrate on so many issues. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is actually making Serbs lose confidence in international authorities and police," Janjic said.

Asked late yesterday by RFE/RL whether UNMIK police are considering issuing an apology, Chappell responded: "Yes. That's certainly possible. You know, I think we try to be very sensitive to religious concerns here because we understand how important they are."

He said the apology probably will be kept at a local level. "If an apology will help to smooth relations and help move forward, then we'll certainly do that," Chappell said.

Chappell said the likely next step would be for Chief Weber to walk next door to the monastery and speak to church representatives.