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Serbia: Unease Over New Saint

Church choice of new saint seen as sign that right-wing clerics are looking to reassert themselves.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

The canonisation of a controversial bishop has sparked fears that nationalist elements in the Serbian church are seeking to extend their influence.


The Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, confirmed Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, who died in 1956, as a saint at a ceremony in Belgrade's Temple of St Sava on May 24.


The choice is a controversial one. Though Velimirovic is acknowledged as a devout churchman and respected religious philosopher, he is also regarded as an anti-Semite who, in 1935, openly praised Adolf Hitler.


Belgrade-based religious affairs analyst Mirko Djordjevic believes the church’s decision is indicative of a growth in right-wing conservative elements within the SPC.


"It is usual to wait much longer to thoroughly investigate a potential saint, the weaknesses and virtues of his person, and the church’s relation to him,” he explained.


“In this case there was a big hurry to canonise him as soon as possible, perhaps to satisfy political expectations.”


Analysts believe that the canonisation was a statement of intent; that the church is trying to increase its influence over the state to regain some of the power it once enjoyed in Serbia.


The SPC began to rehabilitate Bishop Nikolaj and his work in 1985, with the publication of a national church programme, which contained all the


essential elements of Velimirovic's text, A Warning to Serbian Patriots, which spoke of the inseparability of nationalism and religion.


This programme promoted a populist political and ecclesiastical message, which the Milosevic regime exploited to set Serbia against the rest of the world.


As a result of thunderous propaganda, the right dominated Serbia's social and political scene, with the military, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, SANU, and the SPC stubbornly justifying the nation’s wars.


Observers say Bishop Nikolaj’s canonisation will provide a rallying point for the nationalist political and cultural elite, which, having lost its wars, is attempting to make a comeback.


If the church becomes a catalyst for a right-wing revival, it could soon come into conflict with the present moderate, increasingly pro-western authorities.


The media, meanwhile, has been divided over the canonisation, with the two main Belgrade weeklies, Vreme and NIN, clearly divided over the issue. The former described it as "a disreputable date in the church calendar", while the latter devoted more space to the new saint’s supporters than to his detractors.


Ljubomir Rankovic, editor of the SPC’s official magazine Voice of the


Church, defended the canonisation, saying, "St Nikolaj was great reformer, and everything he did and wrote was for the spiritual renewal of the Serbian people.


“In times such as these, when our whole society is changing, spiritual, moral and cultural renewals have to be base of all others – and the work and personality of Nikolaj will be invaluable in this respect.”


The canonisation provoked different reactions from the public – though the majority welcomed the move.


Belgrade student Andrej told IWPR, "I have a positive opinion about


Velimirovic. I feel that the claims of anti-Semitism were purely communist propaganda. Don’t forget that he died in exile because of that regime.”


But local resident, Vlada, believes it is an ominous sign, adding, “This issue has political implications, as it is a sign that the right-wing is getting stronger again. This could lead to the church taking a much less tolerant line in future.”


Bishop Nikolaj’s character and deeds remain a subject of much debate, nearly fifty years after his death.


Born in 1880, he gained a PhD from Geneva and Oxford and was regarded as one of the best-educated priests in the SPC.


In addition to A Warning to Serbian Patriots, he wrote a number of books dealing with spirituality and the merits of underdevelopment and backwardness in Serbia – the latter embraced by SANU member Dobrica Cosic, who would later be instrumental in bringing Slobodan Milosevic to power.


Though he had praised Hitler in 1935 - comparing him to Serbia's St. Sava Nemanjic, who had made a great contribution to mediaeval Serbian culture - the Germans arrested Velimirovic six years later.


He was subsequently sent to Dachau, where he stayed until the fall of the Third Reich. In 1944, he wrote a strongly anti-Semitic work, Through a Prison Window, in which he stated, among other things, that capitalism, communism and democracy were "inventions of the Jews and their father, the Devil".


After the war, unable to return to his homeland while communism held sway, he travelled to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a regular IWPR contributor


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