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Serbia’s Church Should Stop Alienating Liberals

  • Source:www.balkaninsight.com
  • Date:2018-04-16 07:23

As the Serbian Church marks its first 800 years, it is time that this important national institution rethought its policies and became more charitable and tolerant.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, the only institution in Serbia that reaches all the way back to medieval times, turns 800 in 2019.

Vecernje Novosti, a Belgrade newspaper, published a piece earlier this month stating that the Church had begun a process to change its constitution ahead of the anniversary.

The reported changes are substantial. The appointment of the Patriarch would be done through voting rather than by a random draw of three selected candidates.

All bishops would receive the rank of metropolitan, which would give them more independence in interpreting matters of faith. Finally, the Church’s official name would change to Serbian Orthodox Church – Patriarchate of Pec, which would re-assert its roots in Kosovo by referencing its Ottoman-era seat in the town of Pec/Peja in Kosovo.

But the proposed changes have stirred passions in Belgrade, given that the Church and its leading bishops often engage in politics, from insisting that Serbia never recognises Kosovo’s independence to pronouncements on the role of women, on abortion and on homosexuality.

These conservative interventions in Serbia’s political space are increasingly problematic for liberal believers, however, who appreciate the Church’s core message, history, and rituals but would prefer the church to modernise and be more conciliatory within and outside Serbia.

Although Serbia is not a nation of regular churchgoers, the Church has long occupied a powerful position in society and politics. Along with the military, it is the most trusted institution in the country, far ahead of government institutions, political parties and the media, which are widely seen as untrustworthy.

Besides its spiritual role, it is widely known for its crucial role in shaping and preserving Serbian culture and identity during the nation’s turbulent existence and centuries of foreign rule.

In medieval times, it was the only centre of learning, producing magnificent monasteries and illuminated manuscripts.

After the Ottomans overran the Serbian state in the 15

thcentury, it was crucial in preserving Serbian culture and acted as a political organising force in both the Ottoman and Habsburg empires.

As a key symbol of Serbian ethnic identity, its churches and its clergy suffered alongside the nation in all the many wars of the 20


During World War II, Ante Pavelic’s Fascist Independent State of Croatia, the NDH, worked to eradicate the Serbian Orthodox Church from its lands – along with the large Serbian ethnic minority – both by killings and by forced conversions.

During the recent wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s, ethnic violence often targeted symbols of faith and tradition; many valuable mosques and Catholic and Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed.

After 2004, when Kosovo Albanian extremists damaged and burnt more than two dozen Serbian churches, including several UNESCO heritage sites, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo became one of the key actors representing ethnic Serbs and protecting their heritage.

This is especially true in the Kosovo Albanian-majority area south of the Ibar/Ibri river, where the Serbian enclaves still require protection by KFOR international peacekeeping forces.

Despite its prominent role, a number of the faithful in Serbia are unsure about the Orthodox Church’s organisation, politics and view, however.

The mantra “believe in God, not the Church” is an increasingly common catchphrase for many of these faithful, some of whom recount unpleasant experiences with money-hungry priests fleecing them for services or having to endure political tirades and hateful comments at weddings and christenings.

In socially progressive circles, being a believer has become a stigma: a relatively devout, but liberal friend, kept it a secret that he fasts during Lent from his former girlfriend for fear of being taken for a zealot.

As a believer and a liberal, I think the upcoming anniversary and constitutional change would be a good time for the Serbian Church to rethink its current stances and policies.

In order to better serve its flock, traumatised in equal measure by wars and changing circumstances, the Church could play a greater role in society by showing greater tolerance, taking responsibility for some of its misdeeds and focusing more on helping the vulnerable.

The hard-line stance it takes on contemporary society as a whole, and especially on women’s rights, abortion and homosexuality, ranges from the disturbing to the comical.

Amfilohije Radovic, the influential Metropolitan of Montenegro, last year compared Serbian women who aborted babies to “Hitler or Mussolini”. Amfilohije is also infamous for incongruously blaming the major floods that hit the region in 2014 on Conchita Wurst, the cross-dressing Austrian artist who won the Eurovision song contest a few days before the disaster struck.

These are just a couple of the most egregious examples of offensive announcements from high-ranking church figures.

Other statements include warnings that the

Harry Potterchildren’s books have corrupted youngsters and that women need to submit to men. The Church has also cosied up to up to violent right-wingers in their prosecution of the gay community in Serbia.

Besides its fire and brimstone attitudes, the Church has been extremely lax when it comes to accusation against those within its own ranks.

It did not pursue serious inquests into allegations of paedophilia brought against Pahomije Gacic, the Bishop of Vranje, in southern Serbia, who was accused of sexually molesting four teenage boys in 2003. The charges by were dropped in 2006 as the statute of limitations expired.

Another bishop publicly accused of paedophilia, Vasilije Kacavenda, was allowed to quietly retire due to health concerns after the Church’s Holy Synod watched a private video of him sexually engaging with a young adult man.

Although the former Patriarch, Pavle, maintained a mostly pacifist attitude during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the Church has never fully condemned those in its ranks who spread jingoistic attitudes or helped with the oppression of the non-Serbian population.

Instead of condemning crimes against Bosniak, Kosovo Albanian and Croatian civilians, its statements about the wars are often tinged with relativisation of the suffering of non-Serbian victims and with a refusal to condemn Serbs who were found guilty of war criminals.

Last but not the least, the Church’s recent ostentatious display of wealth, ranging from priests driving around in fancy 4X4s to the construction of sparkling new churches, now overshadows its charitable activities.

Considering the widespread poverty of its flock, the Church could use its tax exemptions and extensive property to fund hospitals and protect the homeless and needy, rather than pour money into lavish projects like gold-plating the domes of the St Petka monastery in Bijeljina in Bosnia or the marble and gold decoration of the St Sava church in Belgrade.

Similarly, it could persuade some of its many benefactors, a number of whom obtained their fortunes in murky circumstances, to pay some attention to the physical wellbeing of their compatriots - beside their spiritual needs - and encourage them to invest in health charities, scholarships and not only now fashionable churches.

Although a number of Serbs still go to their priests for confession and guidance, many are put off by the scoffing, judgemental attitudes expressed by some of the clergy and reinforced, in part, by intolerant preaching.

These issues are frustrating for many believers who see that the Church could play a hugely beneficial role in society. In these chaotic times when traditional values such as charity, community and individual honour are either uprooted or perverted by greed and aggression, and much of its flock fails to see a bright future, preaching the values of love, faith and hope is sorely needed.

It would be a welcome change for the Church it to use its accumulated experience to make politics and society wiser and transmit the Christian ideals of reconciliation and redemption, rather than soil itself with hurtful political pronouncements.

With 800 years under its belt, and hopefully at least as many ahead, it is a rare institution in Serbia that should be able to think of how to improve society in the long run and instil some wisdom and compassion in our fraught lives.

Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight.Here is where to find a copy.

  • Source:www.balkaninsight.com
  • Date:2018-04-16 07:23
Key Words:Church,Serbian,Serbia,Kosovo,society
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