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Serbia: Complicated Dance Between Orthodox Church, Politicians

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By Bojana Milovanovic

Analysts agree on one thing: the church maintains a connection with Serbian political parties.

The real question, they argue, is which partner leads in this dance? Which wields more power over the other?

Religion analyst Zivica Tucic believes the Serbian Orthodox Church’s influence on politics is weaker than many assume, given the bishops’ broad range of views.

Serbia
Serbia

“The bishops have very different political orientations, from right-wing conservatism to closeness to the left, as in the Socialist Party,” Tucic told SETimes.

“However, the very ‘top’ of the church, that is the Holy Synod, respects the current government, which leads some to conclude the church leaders are close to [President Boris Tadic’s] Democratic Party,” he said.

That conclusion is simplistic, Tucic said. In reality, the Serbian Church is more interested in advancing its own interests than in specific political affiliations. In particular, he explained, it is intent on securing the return of church property nationalized after World War II.

The relationship is often one of mutual gain: the church seeks out politicians who are receptive to its concerns, while the politicians benefit from their perceived affiliation with the church. The debate over the church and politics reignited in mid-April, when opposition leader Tomislav Nikolic staged a hunger strike. He described his actions as a “Christian response” to the government’s refusal to call early elections.

He ended the strike on Easter, at Patriarch Irinej’s request and with a scolding, says Tucic. “The attempt to give a Christian note to his actions, to the strike, failed. The patriarch described it as un-Christian and suicidal.”

“The patriarch is adhering to the notion that the current authorities [president, government, parliament] are legal and legitimate and, according to Gospel, must be respected as the result of the will of the people,” Tucic explained. “Patriarch Irinej has ‘depoliticised’ the church, since during the illness of his predecessor, Patriarch Pavle, some bishops had politically exposed themselves, which is now far less likely.”

Historian Cedomir Antic maintains that throughout Serbian history, the state has always has more of an influence on the church than vice versa. “Certain governments and rulers dismissed church leaders,” Antic tells SETimes.

Conversely, he notes, they have also tried to drag the church into politics. “In 1990, Slobodan Milosevic allowed his office to issue a news release saying that the patriarch had welcomed the victory of the left in the election, and the church had to deny that,” Antic recalls.

Milosevic’s regime, he continues, was not the only one that took advantage of its relationship with the church. The reformist, democratic cabinet of Zoran Djindjic was the biggest donor to the construction of the St Sava Church in Belgrade and introduced religious classes in schools.

“Parties that claim to be left-wing and want the separation of the church from the state for some reason they say are pragmatic, in reality wish to please the church. Another political structure seeking to take advantage of the church is the far right. There are right-wing parties that claim the church should be active in political events, citing the medieval symphony theory, according to which there should be harmony between the church and the state,” Antic says.

As for the Nikolic’s hunger strike, Antic says the veteran politician put the church on the spot, forcing it to come out and take a stand.

“That is when the bishops started visiting Nikolic, and Nikolic tried to use them to somehow get out of all that, while the government used the whole situation in its own way,” Antic said.

Tucic, meanwhile, emphasizes that the world of the church is fundamentally different from the world of politics, and many of the normal political categories do not apply. The church remains aloof from politics to a considerable degree – a stance which limits its involvement in civic life.

“There are no clearly defined factions, there is no simple division into ‘progressives’ and ‘regressives’, ‘conservatives’ and ‘reformists’. The Episcopate lacks a clear political concept, a clear view of the state either in the country or in the world, and they are even insufficiently informed because they never tried to make it otherwise,” he said. “They are not taking any particular stand on political issues at archbishop assemblies, and the internal rift is blocking the church from considering the important matters of ethics and internal missions.”

“Churches today want to influence legislation related to ethics, as well as [issues such as] homosexuality, same-sex marriage or abortion. Churches, including the Serbian one, no longer think they have the possibility of influencing foreign or internal policies. Patriarch Irinej, for example, has left the matter of Kosovo to the state, which is good,” Tucic said.

SETimes

SETimes

The Southeast European Times Web site is a central source of news and information about Southeastern Europe in ten languages: Albanian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, English, Greek, Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian and Turkish. The Southeast European Times is sponsored by the US European Command, the joint military command responsible for US operations in 52 countries. EUCOM is committed to promoting stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region.

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