Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rift In The Serbian Orthodox Church

The presence of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle at a reception hosted by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic may herald an end to the churchman's calls for his president's ouster.
By Vlado Mares

On Republic Day (November 29) the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), Patriarch Pavle attended a televised reception hosted by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The Patriarch's presence at the reception has sent alarm bells ringing among some observers that the pro-Milosevic faction within the SPC has finally won the day and put paid to further calls from the Church for Milosevic to "step down, as the main generator of Evil."

In an open letter to Patriarch Pavle dated December 6, the Bishop of Raska and Prizren, Artemije said the meeting had strengthened the "unstable throne of the Destroyer of the Serbian people, prolonging the (nation's) death throws for who knows how long."

"This gesture has finally exposed the previously concealed and denied truth of division and disagreement over our attitude towards Mr Milosevic's regime within the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This no longer can nor should be concealed, since the truth is more important than everything," Bishop Artemije stressed in the letter.

Bishop Artemije went on to criticise the Patriarch's participation in Republic Day celebrations, refuting that this represented the Church's position.

"Your Holiness, that is your private act, and of those who were there with you," Bishop Artemije emphasised.

The Patriarch had been accompanied to the celebrations by the Bishop of Backa, Irinej Bulovic and the recently appointed Episcope (Bishop) of Milesevo, Filaret.

Until early July (1999) Filaret was a low ranking priest in a Belgrade church in Zemun municipality. The Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, coalition partners with Milosevic, hold power in Zemun. Then out of the blue Filaret was appointed an episcope (Bishop?) of Milesevo at a ceremony attended by Patriarch Pavle and, very unusually, by high- ranking state officials. The presence of government figures at the ceremony was interpreted as a sure sign the regime was working to strenghten its influence in the Church.

Since has appointment, Filaret has "advocated" on behalf of the Milosevic regime in the state controlled media, praising the present authorities for their good government.

In the early nineties, Filaret was something of a media star pushing his extreme Serbian nationalist views. On one occasion he appeared on television holding a skull in his hands, which he claimed belonged to the Serbian child killed by Croats. He also liked to pose for photographers in his priestly attire, but sporting a rifle. Nowadays he can often be seen in the company of Vojislav Seselj.

The internal conflict within the Church culminated in mid-October when one of Milosevic's fiercest critics, Bishop Atanasije Jeftic, had his titles - Eparchy of Zahumlje and Herzegovina and Eparchy Archbishop - revoked.

Bishop Atanasije Jeftic claimed he had stepped down from the offices for medical reasons, but observers remain sceptical that the resignations were voluntary. For an archbishop to voluntarily withdraw from office is unprecedented.

At almost the same moment, the Bishop of Hvostno, Atanasije Rakita, was dismissed from his post as director and editor-in-chief of the SPC information agency, "Pravoslavlje press" ("Orthodoxy press").

The decision to sack Atanasije Rakita was made by the Holy Archbishops' Congregation, at the request of the Mitropolite of Zagreb and Ljubljana, Jovan, who is regarded by many to be a ringleader of the pro-Milosevic faction in the SPC.

Bishop Atanasije Rakita has claimed that Mitropolite Jovan made a previous attempt to have him removed and the "Pravoslavlje press" banned on September 17.

On that occasion, however, all the members of the Congregation were in attendance and Jovan's proposals were rejected. During the mid-October session, however, the Mitropolite of Montenegro and the Coast, Amfilohije was in the United States. The "Pravoslavlje press" was Amfilohije's brainchild, and together with Atanasije Jeftic and Artemije, he is one of Milosevic's main opponents in the SPC.

When asked about the reasons for the dismissal, Atanasije Rakita replied that he and Mitropolite Jovan "diametrically differ in our conceptions of the Church, its role among the Serbian people and the mission in the world." But he added that there were reasons of a "personal nature, intolerance that has been there for a long time."

As an envoy of Patriarch Pavle, Atanasije Rakita participated in a large opposition rally in Belgrade on August 19. In a speech to the crowds he explained why the Church was demanding the resignation of Slobodan Milosevic.

This change in the Church's position on the Milosevic regime has deeply affected those democratic opposition parties who had considered the Church to be one of their strongest allies.

On the day following the Republic Day reception, Vladan Batic, coordinator of the Alliance for Change and leader of Demo-Christian Party, asked Patriarch Pavle to never again attend receptions hosted by Milosevic.

In an open letter to the Patriarch, Batic reminded him that only a few months ago the Serbian Archbishop's Congregation and the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church had asked Milosevic to "step down, as the main generator of evil."

"Your Holiness, if in your goodness you were not aware why that reception was organised - it was a celebration of 29 November 1945, when the Monarchy was abolished and a republic declared. What was being celebrated was an historical injustice, usurpation, violence and terror. What was being celebrated was a crime, the day when we discarded Christ and were, therefore discarded by Christ," Batic said.

The mild nature of Batic's rebuke to Patriarch Pavle has been interpreted by some, as an indication of how unprepared the opposition nationalist parties were for this switch of allegiance by the Church. [Batic is after all not a man known for mincing his words.] With no sign of a united opposition in sight, such a move by the Church could cost these parties much support.

The opposition parties with a more civic outlook have been dismissive of developments in the Church, arguing that the SPC has always been a pillar of Milosevic's nationalist policy and that little if anything has changed.

But rumblings of discontent continue within the Church. Patriarch Pavel recently bestowed holiness of Veselin Boskovic, one of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) officials killed in a road accident near Belgrade on October 3.

The SPO claim the accident was in fact an assassination attempt on their leader Vuk Draskovic orchestrated by the Milosevic regime. A group of priests from the Sabac Eparchy (Episcopate?) issued a statement recently which criticised Partriarch Pavle for bestowing holiness on Veselin Boskovic with one hand while shaking the hand of his killer with the other.

Vlado Mares is a journalist for the Belgrade independent news agency BETA.