The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said Tuesday that Serbs must be able to live peacefully in Kosovo after its final status is determined, and he decried the destruction of Orthodox churches in the province, which he said was carried out with tacit consent of the ethnic Albanian majority.
Patriarch Alexy II said Kosovo was ''sacred'' for Serbs and offered his help in mediating the crisis in the region.
''The Russian Orthodox Church has considerable experience in peace-building and peacemaking, and we stand ready to help,'' he told the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly in Strausbourg, France.
In a speech and a question-and-answer session with parliamentarians from the council's 47 member states, Alexy also lamented widespread poverty and a massive gap between the rich and the poor in Russia, and -- in comments going directly against the spirit of the human rights watchdog -- lashed out against homosexuality, calling it an illness.
Alexy also was to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Catholic Bishops' Conference during his visit to France.
He told the council Kosovo was a subject of political bargaining by people who did not appreciate the province's history and its importance for Serbs.
''Those people have never been to Kosovo and have never seen with their own eyes what Kosovo means for the Serbian people,'' he said.
Orthodox Serbs consider Kosovo, although today predominantly ethnic Albanian and Muslim, the heart of their ancient homeland. Since the end of a 1998–1999 war between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces, Kosovo's minority Serbs have lived in guarded enclaves under fear of attack at the hands of Albanians, and many Orthodox churches and monuments have been destroyed or vandalized.
''There are many monuments that are sacred to the people of Serbia, and we cannot silently stand by when those monuments are being destroyed, despite the fact that they are under the protection of UNESCO and were built in the 12th, 13th, or 14th century,'' Alexy II said.
Kosovo, a province of 2 million people, has been under U.N. administration since 1999. Its final status, which is under discussion by international negotiators, is an emotional issue in the region.
Alexy repeated his calls for a wide-ranging dialogue between cultures and religions, saying no world view, including secularism, should claim a monopoly in Europe or elsewhere.
But on homosexuality he stood his ground, saying he could not depart from his church's teachings.
''No one should be discriminated on the basis of conviction, but no one should try to keep us quiet when we call something a sin,'' he said.
''There is a lot of homosexual propaganda that has a lot of influence on young people who otherwise have nothing to do with homosexuality...it's an illness, distortion of a human being.''
Alexy's calls for an interreligious dialogue are seen as an overture to the Roman Catholics. The Vatican sees the Orthodox Church as a logical partner in its efforts to push its conservative agenda on bioethical, social, and moral issues, including opposition to embryonic stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. (Jan Silva, AP)