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Serbian Orthodox Church Elects New Patriarch


The new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Irinej of Nis

The new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Irinej of Nis

(RFE/RL) – The bells at Belgrade's Cathedral Church rang out to announce that Bishop Irinej of Nis had been elected patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, signaling that 79-year-old Irinej would be the Serbian Orthodox Church's 45th patriarch.

The veteran bishop, known to be relatively moderate, was picked at a gathering of dozens of bishops and other clergy at the Patriarchate in Belgrade on January 22.

“What is most important now is that we all show love, respect, and gratitude for getting the new patriarch so quickly and in such a miraculous way," Bishop Irinej Bulovic said in announcing the result.

Irenej of Nis was then enthroned on January 23 in a ceremony broadcast on television, with the second part of a new two-step ritual slated for Pec, in western Kosovo, at a date that has yet to be announced.

Irenej will replace Patriarch Pavle, who died in November following a long illness at the age of 95. Pavle had headed the church for almost 20 years, a period that included the ethnic wars of the 1990s, which accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In a statement issued by the Belgrade patriarchate, Irinej said he would carry the "burden and all the problems of my awesome and difficult duty together with my fellow bishops."

The body of Patriarch Pavle is carried in a procession during his funeral in Belgrade in November.
The new patriarch will have to face long-lasting issues such as relations with the Vatican and churches in Macedonia and Montenegro that are seeking independence.

Observers see Irinej as seeking compromise between conservatives -- who are opposed to openness to other churches and Western influences in Serbian society -- and reformists, who want the church to be more open and modern.

In a recent interview, Irinej said he would not oppose a visit to Serbia by the Roman Catholic pope. The hard-liners of the church have long opposed such a visit.

Bishop Amfilohije Radovic, who is seen as an anti-Western hard-liner, has served as caretaker for much of the past two years, during Pavle's long hospitalization.

Church historian Milorad Tomanic gave his reaction to Irinej's election in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, saying, "I have to admit that he is not one of those bishops who have been in the spotlight. Beside such 'loud' people as [Bishop] Artemije, [Bishop] Amfilohije, not to mention [Bosnian Bishop] Vasilije Kacavenda, Irinej is truly a man who ordinary people know as someone who does not cause conflicts, a man no one associates with any incident."

Today's election was held behind closed doors amid reports of feuding and jostling among the voters.

Under the complex system, each member of the Holy Assembly of Bishops chooses three preferred names from the list of potential candidates. Any names selected by more than half the assembly members then move to a short list limited to three candidates.

The process can be slow. For the election of Patriarch Pavle in 1990, the vote was taken nine times before a short list was achieved.

Once the list is in hand, the names of the final three candidates are put in three unmarked, sealed envelopes and placed inside a Bible.

A monk selected by the assembly then takes the three envelopes from the Bible, selects one at random, and gives it to the presiding bishop, who announces the name of the new patriarch.

The so-called apostolic vote was introduced in 1967 to prevent Yugoslavia's secular authorities from meddling in church affairs. Church leaders said it was the Holy Spirit that guided the monk in selecting an envelope, thereby eliminating human interference from the final stage of the process.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is the second-oldest Slavic Orthodox Church in the world and the westernmost Eastern church in Europe. It is believed to have between 7 million and 14 million followers, located primarily in the republics of former Yugoslavia.

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