The region currently known as Kosovo is of utmost cultural importance to the Serbs. It is the home of over 1300 medieval churches and cultural monuments, and the Serbians have been living in the area since the Midle Ages. It is unknown when the Albanians began to inhabit the region, but the majority of Albanians are Muslim, and both sides see their histories as being undisputedly attached to the region of Kosovo. Through these various conquests, it is apparent that the religious elements have influenced the changing demographics and ethnic conflicts of the region. The period of rule by the Ottomans for the latter part of the twentieth century solidified class distinctions between Muslims and Christians. These distinctions were drawn along lines of Albanian and Serbian ethnicities. Nineteenth and twentieth century freedoms have now given an outlet to these rivalries.
Thus, the rise of nationalism during the past two centuries has given new meaning to the old religious struggle. In the battle for preservation, Orthodox Serbs have found themselves in arms against both the Islamicized Albanians and the Bosnian Muslims.
Serbians fought to overcome religious differences, and with the aid of the Orthodox Russian empire in the 1830ís, Serbian nationalism was secularized. Albanian nationalism remained ethnic in nature, and was shaped by conservative Islamic traditions. In this way, polarization between the secular and the religious became more acute.
In 1918, state lines were officially declared, but these unfortunately were not drawn along ethnic divisions. Sides were taken, and new allignances and separate political identities led to ethnic cleansing of both Serb and Muslim lands. Tensions became even greater when the scales bounded off balance in 1971, when a net ethnic category was created based on religion, and that religion was Islam. The 1990's brought many attempts to allocate land into state divisions, but these attempts were unsatisfactory. Plans have been refuted due to the claim by Serbs that, territorially, these divisions favor Muslims.
Religion has been a significant backdrop to the Serb-Albanian conflict in Kosovo. One only has to look at the hundreds of demolished mosques and crumbled churches to realize that differences in faith have not been reconcilable. It is important, however, to emphasize that this is primarily a clash between two peoples of conflicting national ideologies. There is a difference between national intolerance and religious intolerance, and in this situation, the central conflict is the maintenance of culture and tradition.
At this juncture in the struggle for peace, religion could become less a barrier, and more a bridge. Religious leaders are now looking to promote religious tolerance, and to enable dialogue in which various communities can peacefully interact and coexist. Religion can be used as a starting point for trust, and from there cooperation and understanding can be extended to moderate the extremist ethnic differences which are perpetuating the war.