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OCN Board Member Alex Machaskee joined International Orthodox Christian Charities’ supporters, including past and present board members, on an inspirational trip to the Balkans last September to meet with IOCC church partners and to observe IOCC humanitarian relief and development projects in Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija, and Montenegro. The trip included visits to historic monasteries in the region and an audience with His Holiness Irinej, Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church; His Grace Teodosije, Bishop of Raska-Prizren and Kosovo-Metohija; and His Eminence Amfilohije, Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral. Mr. Machaskee has shared some of the moments he found most inspirational and humbling with us.
On September 28 the group was fortunate to an audience with His Holiness Patriarch Irinej at 9 a.m. at the Patriarchate. Mr. Machaskee said “he is the shining light for all Serbians to follow our Orthodox Christian faith.” The Mother Church is truly the only connection to Serbians in the diaspora, as the Serbian government does not care to maintain a constructive, productive relationship with Serbians living abroad. The group also discussed the Patriarch’s recent honorary doctorate received at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York September 11. The Patriarch expressed his appreciation for all the fine work by IOCC over the last 22 years, helping people in Serbia, Kosovo – Metohija, Montenegro and Bosnia.
Following the audience with His Holiness, the group traveled to Kosovo by bus. They stopped at Studenica Monastery, the first built Serbian monastery, for a tour with Abbot Tihon. The monastery of Studenica was built around 1190, not far from the picturesque Ibar gorge, 11 kilometers from the small town of Usce on the Ibar highway. The history of the Studenica Monastery was initially written by its first prior St. Sava after his return from Hilandar, Mt. Athos. “This, our Holy monastery, as is known, was once a recluse hunting ground whence came our master and ruler to hunt. Stefan Nemanja who ruled over all the Serbian land desired to build on this bare land this monastery for the life and enhancement of the monastic order.” By the grace of God and the protectorate of the most Holy Mother of God, the prayers of the founders, the blood and sweat of the monks and the labor of the many rulers and faithful flock, the Studenica Monastery has been able to survive on its foundations to this day. There were several workers on scaffolding touching up frescoes at Studenica.
The following day, their first stop was an in-depth guided tour of Gracanica Monastery and church. The group met with Fr. Ilarion (former actor) and Fr. Srdjan. Graçanica Monastery was the last of an imposing series of endowments that King Milutin, the insatiable builder of divine churches, erected in and outside his ancestral land. King Milutin probably thought that a work of art, like building Graçanica (1316 – 1322), brought the founder immortality in the present and assured it in the future. King Milutin was the richest ruler in the Balkans, richer than the Emperor of Byzantium. According to Mr. Machaskee, “Graçanica never ceases to delight us with the beauty of its architecture. Graçanica offers boundless richness and beauty in its very well-preserved frescoes.”
They then traveled to Novo Brdo, where everyone was impressed by the dynamic leadership of Protenica Svetlana Stevic of Majka Devet Jugovica and the soup kitchen and farm sites. Majka Devet Jugovica (named after the nine sons who were killed in war) operates six soup kitchens in Kosovo, feeding 2,137 people each day – the poor, the young and old.
While traveling by bus, the group learned that with IOCC support, a way of bending long rods to support greenhouse covers was developed, and now greenhouses are being erected throughout the area, extending the growing season for vegetables and flowers. We also met with representatives of the Faculty of Agriculture. We stopped at Zvecan to visit a rose production facility and an IOCC Enhancing Agriculture Capacity.
During the trip the group explored IOCC projects in Gorazdovac and Brestovik, such as greenhouses and water wells and then visited the Patriarchate of Pec–three churches comprising a unique architectural structure. They also visited Decani monastery for an in-depth tour, dinner and vespers (Canon to Holy King Stefan). They all had some time to catch up on emails in the wi-fi section of the monastery. In one of the conversations with a monk, he said he never watches television – his television is the fire he watches in his little stove.
Visoki Decani Monastery is situated in the western part of the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohia. It was built between 1327 and 1335 by the Serbian medieval king St. Stephen of Decani and was dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord. The monastery is settled in the picturesque valley of the Bistrica River surrounded by the mountains and forests of the Prokletije mountain range. It is the largest and best preserved medieval monastery in Serbia. During its turbulent history, the Monastery was an important spiritual centre with developed artistic and intellectual activities. Although the monastery buildings suffered damage from the Turkish occupation, the church has been completely preserved with beautiful 14th century fresco paintings. Today a young brotherhood of 30 brethren lives in the monastery, continuing the centuries old tradition of the past. The brotherhood has developed various activities: wood carving, icon painting, book publishing and is also active in the missionary work. The beautiful monastic services are served according to the typicon of Mount Athos.
They also visited the Monastery of the Patriarchate of Pec, located at the very entrance of the Rugova gorge near Pec. The complex of the Pec churches is the spiritual seat and mausoleum of Serbian archbishops and patriarchs. As a result of severe Turkish repression, Patriarch Arsenios III left Pec with several thousand Christian families and emigrated to southern Hungary at the end of 17th century. Despite pressure from the local Moslem population, the monastery has been preserved until today. After the Second World War, the Patriarchate of Pec was converted into a convent. Although this monastery jurisdictionally does not belong to the Diocese of Raska and Prizren, it is nevertheless closely tied to the monasteries of the Diocese. As a stavropegic monastery, it is directly under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch from Belgrade.
Today, the monastery is still one of the most important Serbian Orthodox centers in the Region with the sisterhood of 24 nuns. After the fire, which was set by Albanian extremists in 1981, new residential quarters were erected. After the war 1998-1999, the monastery became an important center for the remaining Serbs in the area. The nuns live in everyday struggle to preserve this holy site and provide necessary humanitarian assistance to the neighboring Serb enclaves of Gorazdevac and Osojane.
The 24 Serbian Orthodox nuns today, with their abbess Fevronia, resist the continual attempts of Kosovo Albanians to eliminate this last remaining Serbian spot in the Pec area. After the war 1998-1999, all Serb residents of Pec were forced to leave. Those who remained suffered violent death or abduction by Albanian extremists who control the area despite the presence of NATO led troops.
Amidst the absence of any laws and the domination of Islam, the Patriarchate Monastery remains a humble, but eloquent, witness of centuries of Christian Orthodox culture and religion in the Pec region. There is a modern aspect to the monastery. Visitors are given a device, the size of a remote control to conduct self-guided tours of the historic items in the monastery.
The group was fortunate to witness beautiful forest scenery while visiting more monasteries and museums, and visited Cetinje to visit an IOCC funded soup kitchen – in honor of Mati Jelisaveta – operated by the Metropolis of Montenegro. It feeds 150 most vulnerable people each day. Next was a visit to St. Peter’s Dormitory of Cetinski Monastery. Later, they had an audience with Metropolitan Amfilohija, tour of Cetinski Monastery and its outstanding museum with Fr. Obren, secretary of the Metropolis of Montenegro. The group was given a rare opportunity to venerate the right hand of St. John the Baptist.
Mr. Machaskee sums up the trip beautifully, “The trip was inspiring, as we witnessed the humanitarian projects being conducted with our church partners to carry on Christ’s mission. We visited with resilient people–poor in living conditions, but rich in spirit. Visiting so many monasteries also gave me an opportunity for reflection and thanksgiving and a chance to light candles for family members and friends.”
Inspired by the IOCC, the Orthodox Christian Network will be featuring the outstanding charitable, benevolent and philanthropic outreach of this organization who, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond. Please join us in raising awareness for their countless acts of kindness, and we invite you to learn more about the IOCC.
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