By Andrei Zolotov in Moscow and Edmund Doogue in Geneva
Yugoslavia's main church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, has demanded the resignation of President Slobodan Milosevic and his government.
At a meeting on 15 June, the synod of the church's bishops adopted a statement calling on "the Federal President [Milosevic] and his government [to] resign in the interest and the salvation of the people, so that new officials, acceptable at home and abroad, can assume responsibility for the people and their future as a government of 'national salvation'."
Within hours the bishops' appeal gained wide coverage in the Western media, but was not immediately reported by Serbia's state-controlled media.
In the statement, issued as Nato forces took control of Kosovo, the church expressed concern that the withdrawal of Serb troops would leave Serbian Orthodox holy sites -- including the historical seat of Serbian Orthodox patriarchs in Pec, western Kosovo - unprotected, and vulnerable to vandalism by ethnic Albanians. The synod demanded the "immediate defence of the monastery of Pec Patriarchate, as well as monasteries at Decani and Gracanica and other great shrines of the Serbian people".
The church also appealed to Kosovo Serb civilians -- thousands of whom who are fleeing the province in fear of attacks by ethnic Albanians -- "to remain in their homes and not abandon their shrines, sustained by the words of Jesus Christ -- the one who endures till the end will be saved".
The church also expressed "deep concern" about events in Kosovo, particularly in Metohia and about the "latest exodus of our people". Metohia is an area of Kosovo with a large Serb community.
Several parts of Kosovo are for Serbs the cradle of their national religious and cultural identity. According to many commentators, Slobodan Milosevic has exploited Serb attachment to Kosovo to strengthen his power in Yugoslavia over the past decade.
While warning that Yugoslavia's "isolation ... on the international scene" could not be overcome as long as the Milosevic government remained in place, the Serbian bishops apparently took issue with the recent indictment of President Milosevic by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague, for crimes against humanity. "The final justice is with Our Lord, and not in the hands of a court in The Hague," the statement said.
The Orthodox church is by far the most important institution in Yugoslavia to demand President Milosevic's resignation. Leading politicians opposed to President Milosevic -- ZoranDjinjic and Vuk Draskovic - quickly joined the church's demands for the president's resignation.
The church's statement follows threats by several leaders in the West to withhold reconstruction aid to Serbia as long as Slobodan Milosevic is in power.
Radomir Rakic, editor of the Serbian church's Prvoslavje newspaper, told ENI by telephone from Belgrade that the church's statement was prompted by "the peace treaty and the entry of Nato troops" into Yugoslavia, as well as by the "exodus of people from Kosovo and Metohia".
"The situation there is very, very bad," Rakic said, adding that this was not the first time the Serbian Orthodox Church had rebuked the Milosevic government for the "tragic" situation in the country and called for his resignation. "It [the government] has made us enemies of the whole world."
In a press release on 15 June, a Belgrade youth organisation, the St Savva Youth Community of the Archdiocese of Belgrade-Karlovci, pointed out that the Serbian bishops first demanded Milosevic's resignation in 1992 and had since then repeated the demand several times. But, the St Savva statement added, the church had protested strongly against Nato's bombing campaign, and, like other Yugoslav institutions, had refrained from criticism of Milosevic during the 11-week war.
Rakic said that a key Serb Orthodox official -- Bishop Artemije of Kosovo and Metohia -- had, in February this year, before Nato launched its campaign, urged President Milosevic to introduce democratic reforms and warned that catastrophe might follow if there were no immediate changes.
In Moscow, Patriarch Alexei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely linked to the Serbian church, refused to comment on the call for Milosevic to resign. But he joined the Serbian church in calling for the international peace-keeping forces to protect not only the rights of Albanians, but also of the Serb population of Kosovo. The international community should not forget that "there are many places sacred for Serbs" in Kosovo.
In Geneva, Alexander Belopopsky, Europe secretary of the World Council of Churches -- of which the Serbian Orthodox Church and several Protestant churches in Yugoslavia are members -- also declined to comment on the church's call for the president's resignation.
Asked by ENI whether the church's statement signalled a change of heart since the Bosnian war, when a number of western European churches feared the Serbian church was too closely allied with the Serb nationalist cause, Belopopsky said the church had for many years criticised the Milosevic government, and had at the same time believed it was its duty to speak out for the Serb people and also for their religious monuments.
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full text of the statement:
Communique of the Holy Synod
June 15th 1999
The Holy Synod is deeply concerned about the events in Kosovo and Metohija and the latest exodus of our people there.
On that occasion, the Holy Synod is appealing to the international forces now occupying Kosovo and Metohija in order to protect the rights of Albanians and to safeguard their return home, to equally protect the Serb people and other ethnic groups living in Kosovo and Metohija, too.
At the same time, we are claiming an immediate protection for the Pec Patriarchate, Decani Monasteries of Decani, Gracanica, and other great sanctuaries of the Serb people.
We are also appealing to our brothers in Kosovo and Metohija to stay at their centuries' hearths and not to desert their Sanctuary, firmly believing in Crist's words: "He who endures to the end, he will be saved".
Faced with the tragic position of our entire people and the federal state, convinced that the final judgment and justice are in God's name, and not in the instrumentalized Hague Tribunal, we are simultaneously demanding that the topical President and his Government should resign for the sake of the people and its salvation, so that new persons, eligible to the home and foreign public, could take over the responsibility for their people and its future, as a National Salvation Government.
reasonable person must find it perfectly clear that numerous interior
problems and contradictions, as well as the isolation of our state in
the international environment, cannot be resolved and surpassed under
such a Government and under such circumstances.