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The Orthodox Church in Serbia
by Jim Forest
Since NATO missiles and bombs began raining down on what’s left of Yugoslavia the night of March 25, every newspaper has published sidebar background summaries about the region and its ethnographic makeup in which the reader is informed that the Serbs are Orthodox Christians while the ethnic Albanians of the province of Kosovo are Muslim. In the main news columns and via editorial cartoons, we are reminded day after day that Serbs are a people innately devoted to ethnic cleansing, an activity for which they are assured of heaven’s blessing by their Church.
This is journalism on the level of a comic book, something like referring to America as a Christian country, ironing out in a few words its demographic complexity. While church attendance in Serbia has gone up since the NATO attack commenced, religious faith remains barely more than a trace element in Serbian political life.
Tito was extraordinarily successful in his 35-year struggle to marginalize the Orthodox Church. Throughout the Tito era, it was a major disadvantage to put one’s toe in the church door. A professed Christian had little hope of a better position or the opportunity for social rewards. Those who wanted to advance in life had to join the Communist Party, in which atheism was obligatory. Tito died in 1980, but many of his social policies survived, including the view that religion belonged to the past. While Milosevic turned to nationalism in his successful bid for power in 1989, in other ways he remained faithful to his political roots.
It was thus a weakened Serbian Orthodox Church that had to define its response to the events that tore Yugoslavia to shreds in the nineties. Priests I interviewed several years ago in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and other Serbian cities and towns estimated that only five percent of the population was baptized, while a still smaller percentage was leading a sacrament-sustained, Christ-centered life. In Serbian cities, hardcore pornography was much more available than religious literature.
Those Serbs who love things of beauty hold ancient monasteries and churches—many of these are in Kosovo—in high regard. In more peaceful times they were always ready to take guests like me to visit these “monuments,” but those who crossed themselves, kissed icons, and visibly prayed in such places were the exception, not the rule. Despite occasional conversions by young intellectuals, the vast majority of Serbs continue to regard the Church as a beautiful museum with little relevance to daily life in the modern world, though in recent years outspoken criticism by the hierarchy toward the Milosevic regime has earned the Church a certain respect among those working for a more democratic society. Even among very secular people, Patriarch Pavle is spoken of as a saintly person.
The Orthodox Patriarch Pavle—a small, lean, white-bearded man—has a meek but determined manner. He is well known for having personally taken part in various protest demonstrations in Belgrade—in 1997 he led a procession that freed protesting students who were under police siege in central Belgrade.
Pavle has touched Serbs even more deeply by being accessible to ordinary people and for significant gestures in his private life. One cleric complained to me how inconvenient it was when Pavle came to visit his parish church. “You can never say exactly when he will arrive, how late he will be. He travels by tram and bus, then walks the rest of the way. Of course we offer to drive him, but we know beforehand that his answer will always be no. He says he will get a car only when the poorest person can have one.”
While Pavle is far from the only cleric whose life isn’t centered on career and material rewards, it is depressingly easy to find pastors who impress one as being more interested in cars than souls. Two Serbian friends of mine had to delay their wedding in Belgrade, having decided they would not allow a priest to bless their marriage whose main interest was his fee. (The going rate two years ago, Adrijan and Sanja soon discovered, was 250 deutsche marks.) It took more than a week to find a priest who wanted to talk about marriage rather than his honorarium.
Further complicating the problem of the Church’s role in post-Tito Serbia is the fact that the Church, however crippled by past oppression, is the only institution that still incarnates Serbian identity. No other social structure is so deeply linked with Serbia’s long history, traditions, achievements, and sorrows. This has led Serbian nationalists, in many cases atheists, to value the Church for “cultural” reasons even while regarding its views on ethical and political matters as irrelevant. For the ultranationalist, ultimate values are national, not religious. An icon in someone’s home can be more a sign of Serbian than Christian identity; the cross can be used as a symbol of ethnic cleansing rather than Christ’s self-giving love.
This often makes it harder for visitors, journalists among them, to correctly interpret what they are seeing, a confusion made more intense by those Serbs for whom superficial identification with Orthodoxy is seen as a necessary component of one’s all-important national identity. (Thus one can joke that when some Serbians cross themselves, it is in the name of the Father, the Son, and St. Sava—one of the most revered national saints.)
Yet the direction of the church’s hierarchy, while wanting to preserve all that is good in Serbian identity and tradition, has been to oppose ultranationalism and to speak out clearly, even at personal risk, against all that Milosevic and others like him represent. The church’s pastors see the neglect of spiritual life as being at the heart of the nation’s crisis.
“For 60 years under communism, atheism was the official religion,” Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac-Valjevo explained in a press interview in 1995. “For 50 years priests were forbidden from going into schools and from visiting the army. People were educated without any contact with belief in God, and were taught that there was no soul. Those generations [who received an atheist education] are now soldiers. That is the reason for genocide. As one philosopher said, ‘If you take away God from man, man becomes the strongest animal.’”
One hears a similar directness on controversial issues from Patriarch Pavle. When I first met him in 1994, I asked about the civil war that was then raging in Bosnia. He responded that the blame must be shared by Serbs along with everyone else—the governments of the several republics of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States: “Everyone is guilty. There are criminals on every side. God alone knows who has the greatest blame or who has committed the most sins.” In such a situation, the Church “must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together, where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime.”
The basic principle was summed up in a statement issued by the Serbian bishops on March 23rd: “The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God.”
At the same time a set of additional prayers was added to the Liturgy, including this petition: “For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans, by spilling innocent blood, or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and their hearts, and illumine their souls with the light of love even toward their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.”
The Church’s response to the war, in earlier years expressed chiefly in terms of fundamental moral principles, has increasingly become more specific in promoting policies the Church believes make peace more likely.
The bishop chiefly responsible for church efforts on behalf of Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, has made five trips to Washington, D.C., and traveled repeatedly to European capitals in his efforts to convince the West that it was mistaken in its long-running support of Milosevic. As he said in a letter sent to US Secretary of State Albright in February:
We believe that US policy must cease to be perceived as hostile to the legitimate interests of the Serbian nation and must, instead, be directed toward the replacement of the Milosevic regime by a democratic government . . . The Milosevic regime, as the repeated generator of crises, cannot be relied upon to help secure a just and durable peace. However, current American policy seems to be repeating, once again, the mistakes of the past, relying on the one hand upon guarantees given by the Milosevic regime, while holding only the Serbian nation reponsible for the escalating cycle of violence. This mistaken policy, we believe, now on the verge of a NATO intervention in Kosovo province, will be entirely counterproductive.
He argued that NATO intervention would strengthen the Milosevic regime—indeed it has—and be a major setback for the democratic opposition in Serbia, which in turn would delay democratization, a precondition for peace in the Balkan region. “In the aftermath of a NATO intervention, whether in the form of a NATO occupation of Kosovo or an air campaign against Serbia, it is certain that the Milosevic regime would take decisive and drastic action against its domestic opponents. A NATO intervention in Kosovo would risk setting back the cause of democracy in Serbia and in the Balkans for years to come.”
On behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Artemije proposed a solution inspired by the Swiss example—that Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians each be granted the right to self-administration in rural areas in which they constitute relative or absolute majorities with economic, judiciary, and political links to Serbia, while in major cities a system of multi-ethnic rule be adopted in which political power is shared through a two-chamber Assembly.
Such policy advice was given month after month. Bishop Artemije even went to the chateau at Rambouillet during the negotiations that preceded the bombing campaign in a final attempt to help the participants find middle ground. His presence was unwelcome, and he was left to stand in the snow outside the gate during the meetings.
One of the other well-known but unheeded voices of the Serbian Orthodox Church has been that of Father Sava Janjic, assistant abbot of the Decani Monastery in western Kosovo, a place of refuge for many in the region and a center of church-backed relief work for all segments of the population, whether Christian, Muslim, or no faith at all.
When Fr. Sava arrived to deliver aid packages in the war-ravaged village of Crnobreg last November, he was dismayed to discover the sign of the cross had been painted on many walls and gates—clearly the work of Serbian security forces who often make use of “the Serbian cross” in the fight against ethnic Albanian separatists.
“It was an abuse because the cross was being used as a symbol of hate,” he said. “The cross is a symbol of love and of tolerance, of spiritual and human values. It is unacceptable to use it to humiliate anyone. Religion in our time is often used for political and ideological purposes. Because of its great emotional impact religion can help mobilize people, for good or evil.”
The abuse of religious symbols and labels is all too familiar in times of war, not only by combatants but also by the mass media. Thus we are told that we are watching Christians and Muslims at war when we are in reality watching homicidal nationalists who regard both church and mosque with contempt. n
Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its publication, “In Communion.” He is the author of many books, including Praying with Icons and Living with Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton. He has lectured at hundreds of parishes and colleges, and has led retreats at centers in both the USA and England. He and his wife Nancy have six children and make their home in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.