New Serbian Orthodox patriarch seen open to dialogue

January 22, 2010
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New Patriarch Irinej in Nis on 19 Jan 2010/Stevan Lazarevic

The  Serbian Orthodox Church elected a new leader on Friday seen as open to modernisation and interfaith dialogue at a time the country is seeking a future with the European Union. Bishop Irinej Gavrilovic, 80, will be Serbia’s 45th patriarch and the successor to the late Patriarch Pavle.

The church is an important moral force in Serbian society and politicians often seek its tacit support. Religion has long been a defining, and often dividing, characteristic of Slavs in former Yugoslavia, identified as Orthodox Christians, Catholics or Muslims whether or not they are believers.

Zivica Tucic, a Belgrade-based religious affairs journalist, described him as a moderate and constructive man.  “Patriarch Irinej is also very open to other churches and is a man of dialogue,” he told Reuters.

Until Friday, Irinej served as bishop of Nis, a large diocese in the south of the country. He remained largely neutral during Serbia’s turbulent 1990s and is regarded as a figure who could put an end to theological bickering inside the church and strengthen its role in society.

Earlier this month, Irinej said the pope might visit Serbia in 2013, marking a break with the church’s long-held opposition to a papal visit.

The election took place in seclusion in a complicated vote by at least two-thirds of metropolitans, active bishops and candidates for bishops who have run dioceses for more than five years.  Each member of the assembly voted for three candidates and the vote was repeated until the selection was reduced to three names which were then placed inside a Bible in sealed envelopes.

After a religious service, a monk picked one envelope and handed it over to the presiding bishop who announced the name of the new patriarch.  The so-called “apostolic vote” was tailored in 1967 to curb the influence of Communist authorities in Yugoslavia on the appointment of patriarchs.

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Orthodox Christmas Eve in front of St. Sava church in Belgrade, 6 Jan 2010/ Djordje Kojadinovic

Irinej will likely maintain the church’s opposition to the independence of ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, cherished as the cradle of medieval Serbian civilisation, but one Muslim official welcomed his appointment.   “I believe the new Patriarch will be more open for good dialogue and I believe we will start a new phase of cooperation between Kosovo and the Serb Orthodox Church,” said Qemajl Morina, vice dean of Islamic Studies Faculty, part of the Islamic Community of Kosovo.

Although the Serbian population in Kosovo has dwindled in past decades, the Serbian Orthodox Church still has dozens of monasteries and churches there.

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