A Cambridge cultural specialist’s claim that she was barred from discussing the monastery at Decan at an international conference in Peja has caused a heated debate about free speech.
A Cultural Heritage scholar at Cambridge University in the UK, Nora Visoka Weller, has accused a conference in Peja of censorship, claiming the organizers of the conference, “Heritage-led regional and international relations: building blocks or slippery slope?”, part of the ILUCIDARE research project, told her not to speak about the Serbian Orthodox monastery at Decan/Decani.
The organizers of the conference in Peja have denied the allegations.
According to Visoka Weller, who specializes on heritage and conflicts and international policies on heritage protection, the prohibition was unacceptable and heritage issues cannot be debated properly where the right to freedom of expression is not allowed.
“I was invited to talk about the politicization of cultural heritage, but was asked to talk about other examples within my work, never to mention the Monastery of Decan,” she wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.
“This is unacceptable censorship on my part and in the end the lecture was cancelled. Culture and the development of inter-ethnic heritage-based debate cannot be debated unless the basic right to freedom of expression is recognized. What kind of oppression is this?” Visoka Weller wrote on her Facebook page.
The local project partners and the Brussels and Hague-based pan-European heritage foundation Europa Nostra deny the claims.
Koenraad Van Balen, project coordinator and chairman of the Steering Committee of the ILUCIDARE research project, told BIRN that no topics were censored at the conference.
According to him, the topic of the monastery was mentioned by the host partner but did not enter the final agenda of the conference because the consortium did not have enough time to prepare a scientific discussion on it.
“Nora Weller had preliminary contacts with the host partner of our meeting in Kosovo, but as the proposed workshop was not retained on the final program, she was not invited to speak at our meeting. Therefore, her claims of censorship are surprising and inaccurate,” Van Balen of University of Leuven said.
He added that the topic of Decan monastery would require full preparation by all participants in the discussion.
“No topic has ever been banned from discussion during our meetings including the conference in Kosovo. We have not imposed restrictions on any invited speaker,” he said.
“The ILUCIDARE Consortium and each of the partners in this consortium are committed to promote free speech and constructive discussions on any heritage-related issue, if the conditions for a scientific debate are guaranteed,” he concluded.
The director of the local partner, Kosovo Foundation Cultural Heritage without Borders, CHwB Kosovo, Sali Shoshi, also told BIRN that discussion of the monastery was a sensitive topic and would need preparation. He also said a discussion on the monastery will be held in future.
“Certainly, this decision was influenced by Europa Nostra, which is part of the consortium. Of course, they have reasons of their own, but in the consortium, it is a reflection of a need for much more consultation for this work, and for it to be postponed to be one of the activities in future,” Shoshi told BIRN.
But Visoka Weller told BIRN that arrangements for a later talk about Decani Monastery were irrelevant. The important thing is that she was not allowed to talk about this topic in Kosovo, now, she said.
“For me, the level of control over what happens at a conference on issues that have the greatest impact on the people of Kosovo is unacceptable and frightening,” Visoka Weller said.
However, Shoshi insisted that, even at this conference, there were questions, answers and discussions on the topic during the panels and workshops.
Arsim Canolli, a university professor of anthropology who participated in the conference, accused Europa Nostra and their partners of using “cancel culture”.
“Instead of discussing and talking about improving things, which Nora could do as a cultural heritage researcher, her discussion was cancelled … By whom? By those who promote free academic dialogue and discussion? To me such cases are unacceptable. I condemn them. They should never happen again,” Canolli wrote on Facebook.
The ILUCIDARE project is led by the University of Leuven in Belgium and brings together eight international partners: Europa Nostra (based in Brussels and the Hague), KEA European Affairs (Belgium), World Monuments Fund (Spain), Cultural Heritage without Borders, CHwB (Kosovo), Universidad de Cuenca (Ecuador), the International Cultural Centre (Poland) and IMEC (Belgium).
Europa Nostra, which serves as a central hub for local heritage preservation organizations throughout Europe, has included Decani Monastery on its list of Europe’s “Seven Most Endangered Monuments”.
Medieval monastery long in the hot seat
The medieval monastery founded in the first half of the 14th century, is one of the finest surviving Serbian Orthodox edifices in Kosovo.
However, its relations with the local community in western Kosovo have long been fraught, featuring numerous disputes over its landholdings and protection.
The Constitutional Court of Kosovo in 2016 recognised Decani Monastery’s right to ownership of 24 hectares of land, a ruling which the local municipality has opposed and never implemented.
The land was donated to the monastery under an agreement with the government of Serbia and the monastery in 1997, before Kosovo became independent.
While locals have long resented the donation, international institutions in Kosovo have repeatedly called for the decision of the Court to be respected.
In 2008, the Kosovo parliament adopted a Law on Special Protected Areas, designed to ensure the protection of Serbian Orthodox monasteries, churches, other religious sites, as well as historical and cultural sites of special importance to the Serbian and other communities in Kosovo. Decan is one of the protected areas, according to this law.
By law, various activities are prohibited in these areas, such as: construction or industrial development, the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources and the construction of dams, power plants or power lines, kilns and factories and transit roads in rural areas, or constructions or developments leading to deforestation or environmental pollution.