Serbian Orthodox Church faces key decision

Belgrade, Serbia - Four months after Serbia swore in a pro-Europe government in a move away from its nationalist past, the Serbian Orthodox Church is deciding whether to stick to its hardline course or become more moderate.

The new face of a church that has long defined Serbs' national identity will emerge after elders decide at a meeting on Tuesday whether to accept the resignation of ailing 94-year-old Patriarch Pavle and choose a successor.

If his resignation is accepted, a new patriarch will be chosen some time in the next three months.

"Now Serbia is after war, after bombing, now Serbia is a very normal democratic country and everything has changed in this country -- only not the church," said Zivica Tucic, the Belgrade-based editor of an independent publication on the church. "It was not possible with the old patriarch."

Patriarch Pavle was elected to the church's top position in 1990 during the dying days of Yugoslavia.

He presided as Serbs warred with neighbors during the 1990s in Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Kosovo, with his priests often blessing soldiers heading to battle those from other religions.

Patriarch Pavle was the one who gave late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic the green light to negotiate an end to the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict on behalf of all Serbs.

Serbs, Croats and Bosnia's Muslims are divided by their religion -- Croats are mainly Catholic and Serbs are predominantly Orthodox. With the Balkan nations still sorting out their place in the world, religion has a big influence.

"The Serbian Orthodox Church still plays a major role in Serbian society," said Paul Mojzes, author of "Yugoslavian Inferno: Ethnoreligious Warfare in the Balkans."

He said the Church was likely to remain "highly visible" as long as Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia on February 17, remained an issue and questions remained about the future of the Bosnian Serb half of Bosnia.


These issues could still threaten peace in the Balkans at a time when Serbia needs stability to attract foreign investment and eventually join the European Union.

EU accession is a goal of the coalition government sworn in on July 7 after an election in which the pro-EU Democratic Party emerged as the largest party, suggesting voters want Serbia to take its place in the European mainstream.

Pavle stepped aside from running the Church earlier this year and nationalist Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic became acting head.

"If the Metropolitan of Montenegro, Amfilohije, becomes patriarch, the church remains on the same hardline nationalistic course," said Vjekoslav Perica, author of "Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States."

"If he loses, the new Serbia as shown in the last elections becomes more likely. However, the Church will not change its line regarding Kosovo."

Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian nation.

Its independence has been recognized by the United States and other countries. But Serbia and historically Orthodox Russia and Greece are among those that refuse to recognize Kosovo, where more than 90 percent of people are ethnic Albanians.

"Serbia's whole history is there, it is its spiritual center," Amfilohije told Reuters in an interview last month.

The Orthodox bishop in Kosovo has ordered his priests not to talk to Albanian and international officials there for fear that this might suggest they recognize Kosovo's independence.

Mojzes expects the new patriarch will be able to influence Serbia's Kosovo policy.

"If a hard-liner becomes patriarch, then it (policy) will remain very confrontational," he said.

A more moderate candidate, he said, could shift the focus on to expanding the civil and religious liberties of Serbs who live in Kosovo.


Several others, including Metropolitan Nikolaj Mrdja in Bosnia, are seen as candidates.

"Several possible successors could lead the Serbian Orthodox Church into a much more rigid posture," said Mojzes, a Protestant U.S. scholar who grew up in Yugoslavia.

"This would likely be the case if Metropolitan Amfilohije ... were to be elected or a much more sophisticated, gentler posture if someone like Bishop Irinej Bulovic of Backa were to be elected."

Amfilohije, who estimates worldwide Serbian Orthodox membership at 9 to 10 million, denied the Church could have done more to avert the spread of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

"During these war circumstances, including during the First and Second World Wars, the Church was also focused on tending to the suffering of the soul," he told Reuters at his headquarters in Cetinje, Montenegro.

"It does not support military activities but it helps people who are suffering."

Whoever becomes patriarch, change is unlikely to be fast.

"I don't expect straightforward changes in church policy," said Radmila Radic, a biographer of Patriarch Pavle. "The Church is a conservative, slow-changing institution.