PRESIDENT Clinton told a newspaper editor assembly at San Francisco that the central issue in the Kosovo conflict - as in the Bosnia conflict before it - is: "Will Islam and Christianity be able to coexist in a positive way in the underbelly of Europe?"
Well, for centuries, the answer to that question has been no. In fact, even branches of Christianity can't coexist in the hate-prone Balkans. Here's a religious history of the region:
In 1054, the two chief Christian centers - Rome and Constantinople - split angrily in a doctrinal squabble. The boundary of their governing territories went through the Balkans. Thus, Croats and Slovenes in the western Balkans became Catholic, while Serbs in the eastern sector became Orthodox.
In 1204, Catholic Crusaders seized Constantinople, and in 1261, Orthodox forces recaptured it.
Then Muslim Turk armies drove into the region. They conquered Kosovo in 1389 and Constantinople in 1453, and pushed as far north as Vienna in 1529. Turkey became Muslim. Orthodox Christianity survived in Greece, Russia and elsewhere.
In the Balkans, under Muslim rule, Christians who converted to Islam could retain their lands and privileges - so many converted, especially in Bosnia. Thus the region was tribalized into three religio-ethnic groups who have clashed intermittently ever since.
After the Turks eventually were driven out of the Balkans, hostility grew between mostly Orthodox Serbia and mostly Catholic Austria-Hungary. In 1914, the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian militant at Sarajevo precipitated World War I.
During World War II, Catholic Croatia and some Muslim Bosnians joined the Nazi side. Croats killed Serbians by hundreds of thousands, forcing many Orthodox prisoners to convert, at gunpoint. After the war, the communist police state suppressed tribal conflicts - but they flared again after the collapse of European communism.
New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote:
"It is really religion that identifies the Serbs, Croats and Muslims of former Yugoslavia: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Muslim. They are all of the same South Slav stock and speak the same language, Serbo-Croatian. But to religion have been added nationalist emotions."
Mostly Muslim Kosovars rebelled against the Serb leadership of Yugoslavia, which began brutal retaliation. When President Slobodan Milosevic wouldn't halt the violent reprisal, NATO and the Clinton administration unleashed the current air strikes.
Can NATO attacks ever erase the religio-ethnic-political hate in the Balkans? We doubt it. The Washington Times predicted dourly:
"Once our infantry rescues the Kosovars, they'll probably have to stay around to rescue the Serbs. The wars between the Serbs and the Muslim Kosovars could be called the Ping-Pong Wars, endless payback struggles to settle ancient accounts in blood and bone."
The newspaper quoted a long New York Times dispatch from Kosovo, outlining cruelties between Orthodox Serbs and Albanian Kosovars.
"Ethnic Albanians in the government have manipulated public funds and regulations to take over land belonging to Serbs," the report said. "And politicians have exchanged vicious insults. Slavic Orthodox churches have been attacked, and flags have been torn down. Wells have been poisoned and crops burned. Slavic boys have been knifed, and some young ethnic Albanians have been told by their elders to rape Serbian girls."
The Washington Times pointed out that this isn't a 1999 report - it was printed in 1987. Change the ethnic labels and a similar report might have been written in 1887, or 1687. The ethnic hate of the Balkans seems eternal.
President Clinton and NATO have stepped into a quagmire. We hope they can achieve some sort of truce and stop the killing, without plunging U.S. troops into an interminable war. But we doubt that any resolution will alter the age-old Balkan hates that resurface endlessly in different forms.