DECANI, Serbia and Montenegro, April 23 (Reuters) - Kosovo's ethnic Albanian president joined Serbs marking Orthodox Easter at a 14th century monastery on Sunday, a gesture unprecedented since the war and made amid talks on the fate of the province.
Facing international pressure to reach out to the 100,000 remaining Serbs, Fatmir Sejdiu made the 80-km (50-mile) trip west from the capital Pristina to the Decani monastery, nestled in a wooded valley at the foot of the towering Montenegrin border.
"I have come here because all citizens must be respected," Sejdiu, a Muslim, told reporters after a short lunch with the monks and a tour of the marble monastery and its immaculate grounds. He was accompanied by Kosovo's U.N. governor.
Orthodox Serbs mark Easter this year on April 23.
It was a sensitive step, seven years since NATO bombing drove out Serb forces and the United Nations took control.
Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority is pushing for independence from Serbia in negotiations under way in Vienna.
But they face pressure from the West to improve life for the Serb minority, ghettoised and targeted for revenge since the end of the 1998-99 war and the deployment of NATO peacekeepers.
Some 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians died and 800,000 fled as Serb forces tried to crush a two-year Albanian rebel insurgency, the culmination of a decade of Serb repression.
Signs of reconciliation are rare. Mutual suspicion and sporadic, sometimes explosive, violence have kept the two communities firmly divided.
"The doors to the Decani monastery are always open to people of goodwill and who bring the message of peace," said the senior bishop at Decani, Bishop Teodosije.
A request by Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former guerrilla commander Serbia accuses of war crimes, to attend the Easter service in the Serb enclave of Gracanica was rejected by the head of the Orthodox church in Kosovo, Bishop Artemije.
Artemije insisted Ceku first rebuild some 30 Orthodox religious sites torched during Albanian mob riots in March 2004, in which 19 people died and 2,000 Serbs fled their homes.
Sejdiu, who succeeded the late Kosovo Albanian pacifist icon Ibrahim Rugova in February, insisted Kosovo's rich Orthodox heritage would be safe.
"We are demonstrating that we are ready to protect all religious monuments in Kosovo, and all cultures," he said.
A UNESCO world heritage site now guarded by Italian NATO soldiers, the monastery, its dark interior a mosaic of Byzantine frescoes, sits on the western edge of a province dominated by 2 million mainly Muslim ethnic Albanians.
Scores of centuries-old monasteries lie at the heart of Serbia's claim to Kosovo as its religious heartland stretching back 1,000 years.
But diplomats say Western powers will steer negotiations that began in February in Vienna toward some form of independence, possibly within the year. The talks, mediated by U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, reconvene on May 4 in the Austrian capital.