The Serbian Orthodox Church:
Not What Cartoonists Would Have Us Believe

by Jim Forest
Orthodox Peace Fellowship

A recent cover of the British weekly journal The Tablet features a pen-and-ink drawing of an Orthodox bishop kneeling in the rubble of a bombed church with President Milosevic behind him, looking far and away the more pious of the two. The headline beneath the drawing read, "Serbia's Martyr Complex," the featured essay in that issue, but it was the drawing that interested me more than the text it illustrated. The bishop's face was that of a typecast Hollywood villain. With only a small change in costume, he could have been Count Dracula contemplating a victim's neck or a ruthless Mafia boss imagining an enemy's death. The archbishop was the arch-Serb.

The art of enmity has for years given us a steady diet of images of evil Serbs, sometimes shown as cavemen, often dripping with blood, victimizing their neighbors. Nor is it unusual to show the Serbian Orthodox Church playing the role as chaplain to the state and accomplice in Serbian war crimes. Journalistic background pieces remind us, if we need reminding, that the Serbs belong to a not-quite-Christian church in which ritual is far more important than the Gospel.

It is rarely mentioned that Serbs have been as much victims as perpetrators of war crimes and that no ethnic group in the old, much larger Yugoslavia has been more "ethnically cleansed" then Serbs -- witness the expulsion of at least 600,000 Serbs from Croatia during the breakup of the former large Yugoslavia, nearly the entire Serb minority, once 12 percent of the population, or the 200,000 Serbs removed from Kosovo by the pro-Nazi Albanian fascist regime during World War II.

It is our fallen human nature, not only the nature of the mass media, to want to iron out the wrinkles that complicate our perception of others. It is a process that reduces the world to comic book simplify. Thus the English say "rather" and drink tea, the French make love and drink wine, the Dutch grow tulips and drink gin, and Serbs kiss icons and drink blood.

In reality the religious life and identity of Serbs is not what we have been led to believe. While it's true that church attendance in Serbia has gone up since NATO bombardment began -- exploding bombs turn one's mind to ultimate things -- religious faith remains a minor element in Serbian social or 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 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 and ideological roots.

It was thus a weakened Serbian Orthodox Church that had to define its response to the events which tore Yugoslavia to shreds in the nineties. Serbian priests I interviewed several years ago estimated that perhaps five percent of the population were engaged in the Church in a significant way, with the vast majority of unbaptized. In the capital, pornography was much far more in evidence 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. Despite occasional conversions by young intellectuals, Serbs tend to regard the Church as a beautiful museum with little relevance to the daily life in the modern world, though in recent years the outspoken criticism by the hierarchy in regard to the Milosevic regime has earned the Church a certain respect among those working for a more democratic society.

Nonetheless the head the Church, Patriarch Pavle, is highly regarded and often described as a saint even by unchurched people. A small, lean, white-bearded man with 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 of many thousands 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."

Not all clerics set such an inspiring example. A deacon I know in Belgrade complains about priests who "are 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 economic. It took more than a week to find a priest who didn't begin the conversation with the announcement of his fee. (It should be noted that most Serb clergy have no regular salary and depend on gifts for services for their livelihood.)

Further complicating the problem of the Church's role in post-Tito Serbia is 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 beliefs and teachings as irrelevant. For the ultra-nationalist, ultimate values are national, not religious. An icon in someone's home can be more a sign of Serbian than Christian identity.

This often makes it harder for visitors, journalists among them, to correctly interpret what they see, 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 nationality. (Thus one can joke that when some Serbians cross themselves, it is in the name of the Father, the Son and Saint 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 ultra-nationalism and to speak out clearly, even at personal risk, against all 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 45 years under communism, atheism was the official religion," Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac-Valjevo explained in a press interview in 1995. "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 of Bishop Lavrentije's projects has been to make available works of literature that will help restore Serbia's spiritual life. When I last saw him, a press he founded in the diocesan office had just published an edition of the complete works of Dostoevsky.)

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 among 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."

Few bishops have spoken so tirelessly against hatred and war. "Let us grasp the teaching of the Holy Apostle Paul," he has said in the past, "that one cannot accomplish good by evil means -- a lesson our mothers taught us through the ages, warning us that evil never brings good. Oh, that God would help us to understand that we are human beings and that we must live as human beings, so that peace would come into our country and bring an end to the killing."

The basic principle was summed up in a statement issued by the Serbian bishops on March 23rd two days before the NATO attack: "The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God."

At the same time a several additional prayers were added to the Liturgy, including this petition: "For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans, 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."

Church 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 of Prizren, has made five trips to Washington and traveled repeatedly to European capitals in his efforts to convince the West that it was mistaken in its long-running support of Milosevic. In a letter the bishop hand-delivered to US Secretary of State Albright in February, he said:

"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 responsible 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."

NATO intervention, he argued, would only strengthen the Milosevic regime 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."

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.

On February 3, Patriarch Pavle sought permission for a non-negotiating representation at the US-led peace conference at the Rambouillet chateau in France. The request was denied. Even so a week later the delegation went to Rambouillet, hoping to put forward the Church-backed peace proposal. They received token recognition in Paris, where a member of the French foreign minister's staff received them, but the gates were closed to them at the chateau. Bishop Artemije held a press conference in a local cafe -- he told attending journalists that "the Serbs in the castle represent only two parties, Milosevic's socialists and the neo-communists of his wife" -- and stood in prayer in the snow outside the chateau gates.

One of the other heroic voices of the Serbian Orthodox Church has been that of a monk, 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.

The lands of the Decani monastery -- built between 1327-35 -- used to stretch to portions of what is today northern Albania. Its service books are the only contemporary objects in the church: a printout from Fr. Sava's computer. There are nearly 10,000 painted figures on the church's frescoed walls, one of the art treasures of Europe.

"While it's nice for monks to live in a medieval setting," Fr. Sava told a reporter last year, "that does not mean we are prepared to accept a medieval mentality. What we have here is a wonderful history that is very important to the world. But there should be more democratization and integration of this country into the world. The greatest losers are all civilians." He hoped the monastery's beauty will help save Kosovo. "This church is so beautiful that people cannot bear to leave, Serbs and Albanians alike."

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."

"This is a war between extremists," he said. "On one side is a totalitarian regime, and on the other, secessionists. We condemn violence on both the Serb and Albanian sides, and we don't support militant secessionism."

He opposed outside military intervention, pointing out that "it will only homogenize Serbs around hardline Serbian policies and destroy the prospects for democracy. The psychology of the Serbs is such that if they are attacked, they become very resentful of the attackers and foreign countries. The regime can use this."

Discussing the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Fr. Sava said, "I am against collective guilt. A court trial for war criminals is essential for confidence building and the reconstruction of democracy. It would be fair first to bring Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic to the Hague Court, then to investigate the responsibility of their subordinates."

Fr. Sava refuses to let his monastery be used as a tool of romanticized national ideas. "The church is and has been a guardian of the Serbian nation, but not in the narrow sense of 19th century nationalism," he says.

"Sadly, the spiritual side of Orthodoxy is not so well known among the Serb people now after 50 years of communism. You might be surprised to know that at our Sunday service of worship we have only about ten people from Decani in attendance. For the Serb, tradition is important, but there has been a secularization of tradition here just as in other parts of Europe, and that has taken man further from God."

"Who does this land belong to? Adam and Eve, that's who," says Fr. Sava. "It is enough to say that Serbs and Albanians lived for centuries on this land. We think that people should not look back to the past. They should go to the future and leave history behind, rather than use religion to get people on their side."

Asked what he would do if KLA guerrillas came to the monastery, he replies, "We would open the door and ask them to have a cup of coffee."

And which side does God take in this conflict? "God is on the side of the suffering people."

Now, after dropping 23,000 bombs in 79 days, NATO is in charge of Kosovo and refugees are returning home while many Serbs flee the province. Much of Serbia and Kosovo lies in ruins, with thousands killed by soldiers and paramilitaries or as "collateral damage" of NATO bombing. While Serbia's military was only slightly harmed, the country's infrastructure was severely damaged. Even water purification plants were targeted. The results will be a high mortality rate for years to come among the more vulnerable members of society.

In June the Serbian Orthodox Church renewed an appeal it first made in 1992 for Milosevic to step down and for the creation of a government of national unity acceptable both to the Serbian people and other nations.

It may be a time of renewed persecution for Orthodox Christians. Bishop Artemije has had to flee Prizren after being under siege from the KLA, but remains in Kosovo and hopes to return to Prizren. As of this writing, two monasteries have been destroyed, one monk reported murdered, and a nun raped by KLA soldiers.

The most striking and hope-giving gesture since the bombs stopped falling has been Patriarch Pavle's decision to move from Belgrade to Pec, the historic center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, an action he hopes will encourage other Serbs to remain in Kosovo or return from Serbia. It is also a gesture to Kosovo Albanians. If Pavle and the monasteries of Kosovo can give witness of Serbians who love their neighbors, and even their enemies, perhaps there can yet be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Kosovo.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and author of many books, most recently Praying With Icons and The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis).

ext as revised July 1, 1999

The Serbian Church and Milosevic

by Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
Orthodox Peace Fellowship

The Serbian Orthodox Church has consistently criticized and opposed the Milosevic government. The "open letter" of Bishop Artemije of Ras-Prizren in Kosovo written on Orthodox Good Friday [posted on this web site at] is no exception. It rather testifies to what has been the unwavering rule of Serbian Church leadership toward the Milosevic government since the fall of Marxism.

Speaking of the "crimes" of President Milosevic, Bishop Artemije relates in his letter how he and lay leaders of an "embryonic" democratic movement in his country visited world leaders in The US, France and Russia five times between February 1998 and February 1999. He describes their written and verbal pleas to the highest-ranking officials, including US Secretary Albright, to give democracy a chance in his country. He underlines their warnings of the disastrous consequences of all military solutions, including NATO intervention. And he laments with indescribable sorrow how their hopes have been buried in the rubble of the NATO attacks and the savagery which it inevitably produced.

Patriarch Pavle

Most of the bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church have been installed since the end of Marxist domination in former Yugoslavia. Many of them, including the present Patriarch, were staunch anti-communists who were greatly persecuted in communist times. They were fervent followers and co-workers of the confessing priest Fr. Justin Popovich, already venerated by many as a saint, who spent his adult life imprisoned in a monastery.

To insure that there would be no government interference in the election of the new patriarch in 1990, and even no possible charge of such interference, the Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church elected three candidates for the Church's primatial see. The names of these candidates were placed in a sacred vessel. After vigil, fasting and prayer Bishop Pavle of Ras-Prizren in Kosovo, the compromise third candidate elected by the Synod, was chosen by lot to be patriarch.

Pavle had served as bishop in Kosovo and Metohija for 34 years, until 1990. This diocese was established in 1219 by St. Sava, the prince-become-archbishop who founded Serbian Christianity. The Kosovo region of Serbia is the "cradle" of Serbian Christianity and national self-identity. It includes the ancient patriarchal see of Pec, the place where the Serbian Patriarch has traditionally been enthroned. It is to Serbs what Jerusalem and Zion are to Jews, what Boston and New England are to many white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. Known and loved for his humility, poverty and identification with all of the people of his diocese, Serbian and Albanian, Christian and non-Christian, Pavle was among the least likely candidates for the patriarchal office among the Serbian bishops. He was certainly among the least acceptable to the ex-communist nationalists like Milosevic who were ruling the country and inciting the crowds.

Patriarch and Peacemaker

Patriarch Pavle came to the United States in the fall of 1992 to preside over the healing of a schism among the Serbian Orthodox churches in North America caused by the conditions of the communist era. The healing of such divisions was his highest priority upon taking office. St. Vladimir's Seminary honored itself at that time by granting the degree of Doctor of Divinity honoris causa to the new patriarch.

The patriarch spoke without notes at the ceremony. He naturally referred to the conflict then raging in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said that he was convinced that peace could come to the former Yugoslavia only when people would relate to each other as they did in his former diocese of Kosovo, and proceeded to tell how an Albanian Moslem would come daily to his cathedral to pray before the relics of a Christian saint entombed there, believing it to be a holy place where the one God was to be worshiped. God alone, the patriarch said, could bring peace to the former Yugoslavia with its deeply ingrained memories of brutality and blood. Without God, he insisted, every effort for justice and unanimity would inevitably fail.

After the ceremony I remarked to a bishop in the patriarchal party that such words would surely not sit well with the former communists who were ruling, and ravaging, the former Yugoslavia in the name of nationalism. I suggested that such words might even lead to violent action against the patriarch himself. The bishop responded that such an eventuality was not impossible, and added that Pavle was not a "political person", but a "holy man of God" and a "servant of all people".

The patriarch's peacemaking activities, with the members of the Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and with Roman Catholic and Moslem leaders, have been firm and consistent. His marching, with Orthodox bishops and priests, at the head of popular protests against the Milosevic regime, as with the university students on the Church's national feast of St. Sava, also testifies to his Church's official position in national affairs.

Church, People and Power

All the above testifies to a fact of greatest significance. Milosevic is not the Serbian people; and the Serbian people are not Milosevic. The Serbian Orthodox Church is no friend of the Milosevic regime; and Milosevic is no friend of the Serbian Church. Still less is the Serbian Church an instrument in Milosevic's hands to be used at will for evil purposes. Many of the Serbian Church's present bishops and priests were among her most dissident clergy and her most persecuted confessors in the days of communism. Their record with Milosevic, and those like him and with him, speaks for itself -- at least to those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds willing to understand.

That American observers can be so ignorant about the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Serbian people generally, in regard to Milosevic and his government, is comparable only to our American government's ignorance of the realities of Balkan history (medieval, modern, Marxist and contemporary), and the mentalities of the Balkan peoples. One can only wonder with amazement and fear about why such inexcusable ignorance continues to endure, if it is indeed ignorance, and not something infinitely more wicked and terrifying.

And one can only weep over the enormity of the sufferings which it brings to the countless peoples of all nations and religions through the criminal policies and actions which it produces and empowers.

Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko is Dean of St Vladimir's Seminary and a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared on the OpEd page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 28, 1999.