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Serbian Orthodox Church ceremony highlights complex Serbian-Kosovo ties

irinej (Photo: Serbia’s Partiarch Irinej in Belgrade, August 4, 2010/Marko Djurica)

Serbian Orthodox Church and political leaders gather on Sunday to enthrone a new patriarch to guide a religion embodying the spirit of Serbia, but the once a generation ceremony will take place on foreign soil in Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but many Serbs still see majority Muslim Kosovo and the monasteries there as the cradle of their Orthodox religion. Old churches and monasteries dot the landscape of the smallest country in the Balkans.

“As you can imagine the political situation is very heated now in the period of the patriarch’s enthronement,” said one Serbian Orthodox Church official who did not want to be named. “The church needs a long-term arrangement which would guarantee its normal life, preservation of its identity and religious freedom, autonomous right to manage its properties in Kosovo as well as special provisions for protected zones.”

Among those expected on Sunday is Serbian President Boris Tadic, whose government does not recognise the independence of its former province. And with thousands of Serbs expected to travel through an Albanian-majority area to the frescoed Patriarchate of Pec where Patriarch Irinej will be enthroned, officials are on guard against trouble.

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Serbian church leader breaks with past, invites pope to Belgrade

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Patriarch Irinej at a news conference in Belgrade, 28 Jan 2010/Ivan MIlutinovic

For all of Irinej Gavrilovic’s 80 years, his Serbian Orthodox Church has kept its distance from the Vatican and the pope, maintaining a division whose roots date back a millennium.  But only a few days into the job as the 45th Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, Irinej has several times repeated an invitation to the Roman Catholic pontiff, hoping that both men could celebrate a significant anniversary in 2013.

It was an expression of hope, not only that the churches could overcome past differences, but also that two men already in their 80s could make plans three years into the future.

On Thursday, Irinej discussed the invitation in a forum that none of his  recent predecessors had ever employed, the news conference, amid a give and take with a gaggle of reporters. There he said his church will be glad to welcome Pope Benedict to Serbia in 2013 in a bid to foster dialogue about reconciliation between two largest Christian communities, a millennium after their Great Schism.

New Serbian Orthodox patriarch seen open to dialogue

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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.

Lottery system to chose next Serbian Orthodox patriarch

pavel-funeral (Photo: Prelates pay respects to Patriarch Pavel, 15 Nov 2009/Ivan Milutinovic)

If U.S. voters elected their president in the same way the Serbian Orthodox Church chooses it patriarch, they could have seen Ralph Nader, Ross Perot or other third place finishers taking up residence in the White House. That’s because the Church, in a move originally aimed at thwarting Communist authorities, uses a system that incorporates a lottery within the election by church elders to choose a leader.

The Holy Synod of Bishops, the Church’s top executive body, will use that system within the next three months to elect a successor to Patriarch Pavle, who died on Sunday. Pavle headed the Serbian Orthodox Church during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s as Serbs warred with neighbours of other faiths.

pavlePavle, 95, died at Belgrade’s Military Hospital where he had been treated since 2007 for various ailments. As his health deteriorated, although nominally still head of the church until death, Pavle had given up its day-to-day running in 2008 to Bishop Amfilohije, who is seen as a Serb nationalist on issues such as Kosovo.

Biden visit to Kosovo monastery splits Serbian Orthodox Church

biden-in-kosovo-1DECANI, Kosovo – A visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to one of the best known monasteries in Kosovo has again revealed a deep split in the church. A veteran of Balkan complexities from his U.S. Senate activism against Serbian aggression during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Biden visited the 14th century Decani monastery on Thursday afternoon to highlight the importance protecting the Serbian minority in Kosovo. (Photo: Fr. Janjic with U.S. Vice President Biden at Decani monastery, 21 May 2009/Adam Tanner)

Father Sava Janjic, sometimes called Decani’s “cyber monk” because of his embrace of the Internet, warmly welcomed the vice president, who had first visited there in 2001. “This is his second visit to this monastery which is one of the most important Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo,” Fr. Sava told Reuters in fluent English. “We sincerely believe his visit will help the preservation of Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo and generally help the position of the Serbian people in Kosovo.”

However, the diocese overseeing Kosovo, which the church considers the cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy, issued a strong statement condemning the visit. “The U.S. vice president is visiting Kosovo as an independent state, to confirm forceful secession of Serbia’s territory and its hand over to Albanian terrorist who were not punished for numerous crimes against Serbian people, Serbian property and Serbian cultural and religious heritage,” the diocese said in a statement. “Does Joseph Biden want to confirm with his gesture that Decani is an American base in Kosovo, the same as Camp Bondsteel?”