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East European Perspectives: February 18, 2004

18 February 2004, Volume 6, Number 4


By Jovan Byford

On 19 May 2003, the Council of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced its "unanimous and undisputed decision" to "include the name of Nikolaj (Velimirovic), Bishop of Ohrid and Zica, in the calendar of saints of the holy [Serbian] Orthodox Church." The announcement stated that, in canonizing Bishop Velimirovic, the council "solemnly confirmed the widespread belief in his sanctity which exists not only within the Serbian Church but throughout the Orthodox World" (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2003). The magnitude of the importance attributed to the new saint was reflected in the decision to allocate two days in the church calendar to his veneration: 18 March, the day of Velimirovic's death in exile in the United States in 1956; and 3 May, the day in 1991 when his remains were brought back to Serbia and laid to rest in his native village of Lelic.

The formal canonization ceremony was held at the Temple of Saint Sava in central Belgrade only five days after the initial announcement. The special liturgy was officiated by Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the presence of all 28 Serbian bishops and several thousand faithful. The sacred remains (mosti) of the new saint were transported to Belgrade especially for this occasion and were displayed in an open casket to be worshipped by members of the public.

The inclusion of the name of Nikolaj Velimirovic (1881-1956) in the diptych of Serbian saints revived the long-standing public debate surrounding the merits of the bishop's contribution to Orthodox Christianity and to Serbian culture as a whole. Underpinning the debate is the fact that Serbia's new national saint is a controversial historical figure. As critics on the liberal left frequently point out, Velimirovic was one of the principal ideologues of 1930s Serbian fascism, whose clerical nationalist, antimodernist, and anti-Semitic religious writings continue to inspire the forces of the Christian right in present-day Serbian society (Popov, 1993; Djordjevic 1996, 2003; Byford and Billig, 2001; Byford, 2002, 2003).

In spite of the controversy surrounding his life and work, a substantial proportion of Orthodox Serbs regard Velimirovic as one of the most important national religious figures since medieval times. Velimirovic's books are widely available in Serbia's bookshops and are said to have sold over 1 million copies over the past 10 years. Also, a number of representatives of Serbia's mainstream political establishment, including a former president of Yugoslavia and one of Serbia's most popular politicians, Vojislav Kostunica, have publicly expressed a positive opinion of Velimirovic's religious philosophy (e.g., Kostunica, 2003).

A recent study of representations of Bishop Nikolaj in contemporary Serbian culture has demonstrated that the widespread apotheosis of Nikolaj Velimirovic -- in the face of ongoing controversy -- entails a significant amount of social forgetting. In popular representations of Velimirovic's life and work, contentious elements of his biography are routinely repressed and replaced with more favorable and selective interpretations that conceal the Bishop's anti-Semitic leanings (Byford, 2004). In that sense, the popular adulation of the bishop can be said to continue in spite of, rather than because of, his contentious views.

The dynamic of repression evident in public discourse is absent from right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic literature where Bishop Nikolaj's controversial writings are explicitly invoked to support clerical-nationalist, neofascist, and anti-Semitic ideological claims (Djurdjevic, 1997, 2002; Krstic, 2002). For this reason, in contemporary Serbia the authority of Nikolaj Velimirovic can be said to represent the meeting point between mainstream Orthodox culture, which represses and seeks to downplay his controversial political orientation, and the exponents of the Christian right, whose claim to legitimacy is based precisely on the "forgotten" aspects of the Bishop's literary output. Importantly however, the popularity of Nikolaj Velimirovic, which stretches across the political spectrum, blurs the boundaries between the mainstream and the extreme in Serbian religious discourse. The continuing veneration of Nikolaj Velimirovic and the reluctance by church authorities to address the controversy surrounding his writings has been shown to implicitly -- and for the most part inadvertently -- legitimize political extremism and facilitate the promulgation of anti-Jewish prejudice in contemporary Serbia (Byford, 2002, 2004).

The present paper proposes to examine this dynamic further, using as an example the campaign for Velimirovic's canonization. In considering in more detail the construction of the bishop's sanctity over the past 15 years or so, it will be suggested that, while the campaign for canonization consistently overlooked Velimirovic's anti-Semitism, certain constructions of the new saint's holiness are intrinsically tied to the controversy surrounding his earthly existence. This includes the claims that Velimirovic had been graced with special mystical powers --those of epiphany, prophecy, and healing -- that are regarded, within the Christian tradition, as important characteristics of saints. The article explores the ways in which the assertions about the "mystical" dimension of Velimirovic's personal history endows the anti-Semitic aspect of his ideology with unwarranted significance and helps maintain anti-Jewish rhetoric on the visible margin of contemporary Serbian religious discourse.

1. The Controversy Surrounding Velimirovic's Life And His Anti-Semitic 'Words To The Serbian People Through The Dungeon Window'
In the first half of the 20th century, Nikolaj Velimirovic, Bishop of Ohrid and Zica, was one of the most highly regarded of Serbian clerics, renowned as much for his nationalist fervor as for his charisma, oratorical skills, and scholarship. In the 1930s, at the pinnacle of his career as a priest, theologian, and evangelist, Velimirovic emerged as the principal voice of Christian nationalism in Serbia. He advocated the establishment of a society founded on Orthodox Christian traditions, and a uniquely Serbian form of religious nationalism and monarchism (Popov, 1993, Subotic, 1993, 1996). Also, Velimirovic propagated the rejection of "all foreign customs and superficial Western traditions" (Radosavljevic, 1986, p. 14) including individualism, equality, religious tolerance, democracy, and other values of modernity and enlightenment.

The anti-Westernism and antimodernism apparent in Velimirovic's writings were suffused with strong anti-Semitic sentiments that permeated his religious thinking from the mid-1920s (Janic, 1999; Djordjevic, 1996). The anti-Jewish and anti-Judaic references consisted of a blend of religious anti-Semitism, which has a long history in (Orthodox) Christianity (Poliakov, 1974), and the 19th-century anti-Semitic conspiratorial tradition whose popularity culminated across Europe in the decades preceding World War II (Cohn, 1957; Pipes, 1998). In Velimirovic's writings, Jews are routinely portrayed as Christ-killers and a cursed people who betrayed God, but also as a powerful satanic force conspiring against Christian Europe (Velimirovic, 1976, 1977, 1985, 2000).

In the 1930s, Velimirovic's ideology provided an important source of inspiration for the forces of Serbian fascism, epitomized by the notorious movement Zbor, founded in 1934 by the pro-Nazi politician Dimitrije Ljotic. Zbor was the most enthusiastic and active collaborationist organization in Serbia during the years of Nazi occupation (Martic, 1980, Stefanovic, 1984). In one of his last interviews, published in the United States in the 1950s, Velimirovic insisted that he was the spiritual leader and eminence grise of Serbian populism exemplified by Ljotic's Zbor. Velimirovic intimated that Ljotic was his "pupil and faithful follower in Christ" who, in the overall Christian nationalist project, was merely "passing the incense burner" (cited in Popov, 1993, p. 6).

In spite of demonstrable ideological links with Zbor and its leader in the prewar years, Velimirovic -- unlike Ljotic -- refused to collaborate with the Nazis during the occupation. There are indications that, before the war, German authorities regarded the bishop -- a committed nationalist and anticommunist -- as a potential candidate for collaboration. Nonetheless, Velimirovic refused to support the occupying force (Dzomic, 2003, J. Radosavljevic, 2003). In July 1941, he was arrested on suspicion of links with Chetnik insurgents, and was remanded under house arrest in a Serbian monastery, first at Ljubostinja and then at Vojlovica. In September 1944, as German troops began to lose ground in the war against the Partisans, Velimirovic, accompanied by the Serbian Patriarch Gavrilo Dozic (who was also in German custody since the beginning of the war), was transferred abroad, first to Austria and then to Germany. Eventually, the two senior Serbian clerics ended up at the notorious concentration camp at Dachau, where they were remanded as "honorary prisoners" (Ehrenhaeftling) for just under three months. Velimirovic's and Dozic's release in December 1944 appears to have been part of a political deal struck between the prime minister of the Serbian collaborationist government Milan Nedic and the German envoy for the Balkans Hermann Neubacher (Petranovic, 1983; Kostic, 1991; Parezanin, 1971).

In recent decades, the brief internment at Dachau in 1944 has been used by Velimirovic's supporters to construct the image of their hero as a martyr and a victim of brutal Nazi persecution (e.g., A. Radosavljevic, 1986, 2003; Marjanovic, 1990; Velimirovic, 1991; see Byford, 2004 for the analysis of this "martyrdom myth"). This has been the case despite the fact that, as honorary prisoners, Velimirovic and Dozic never endured "enormous suffering and torture," as alleged in contemporary biographical accounts (see Tomanic, 2001). The persistent emphasis on the bishop's suffering at Dachau has been shown to serve an important function in the popularization of Velimirovic's work. The ubiquitous narrative of martyrdom acts as a "replacement myth" that diverts attention away from an important controversy surrounding this period of the bishop's life. It represses the fact that at Dachau, for reasons that defy rational explanation, Velimirovic wrote some of his most anti-Semitic material.

Velimirovic's notes from Dachau, which he is said to have written surreptitiously on scraps of (toilet) paper, were assembled and edited only in the 1980s by his nephew, the former bishop of Sabac and Valjevo, Jovan Velimirovic. The work was first published in Germany in 1985 by the then Serbian Orthodox bishop of Western Europe, Lavrentije Trifunovic, under the title "Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window" (Velimirovic, 1985). The principal message of the book is that World War II was the inevitable consequence of the secularization of "godless Europe." Velimirovic also attributed the tragic fate of Serbs during the war to their betrayal of God and Christian traditions in favor of the much-maligned European culture.

Behind the secular, de-Christianized European values anathematized in the book, Velimirovic cites Jewish influence. He claims that "all modern ideas including democracy, and strikes, and socialism, and atheism, and religious tolerance, and pacifism, and global revolution, and capitalism, and communism" are the inventions of "Jews, or rather their father, the Devil" (Velimirovic, 1985, p.194). Even more controversially, in the book Velimirovic reflects implicitly on the plight of Jews during World War II. He interprets their suffering as divine retribution for the murder of Christ:

"Because they have shown themselves to be worse enemies of God than godless Pilate, because in the heat of the battle they uttered those terrible words: 'His blood on us and our children.' That is when the innocent blood became the whip that drives them like cattle through centuries and from land to land, and the fire that burns all their warehouses of plots against Christ. Because that is what the devil, their father, taught them" (Velimirovic, 1985, p.194).

Because of statements like this, "Words to the Serbian People..." has acquired a special status in critical literature on Velimirovic, where it is treated as the epitome of Bishop Nikolaj's prejudice and hatred towards Jews and Judaism (David, 1991; Djordjevic, 1996; Byford and Billig, 2001; Lebl, 2003).

In contrast, in religious publications and ecclesiastical discourse, the status of the book is more complex. In accounts of Velimirovic's life, the creative endeavor at the camp is conveniently obscured by the broader theme of suffering that dominates the biographical narratives. In other contexts however, "Words to the Serbian People..." is attributed great importance, and is even regarded as occupying a privileged position in Velimirovic's opus. As will become apparent, the reasons for this are closely linked to Velimirovic's assumed status as a "man of God" and a saint.

2. Velimirovic's Status After World War II And His Rehabilitation In The 1980s
In the aftermath of World War II, Velimirovic immigrated to the United States, where he died in 1956. Back in his homeland, he was dismissed by the communist authorities as a "clerical-nationalist" and a "traitor." His citizenship was revoked and his name included on an unofficial list of authors whose work could not be openly published in the country. Also, until the late-1980s, Velimirovic was regularly subjected to attacks in the national press, where he was portrayed as a "fascist" (Miletic, 1972), "the darkest individual in the history of Serbian people" (Simic, 1986), and even as a "war criminal" (Jaksic, 1981).

This state of affairs persisted until the rise of Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s, when a small group of Velimirovic's supporters within the Serbian Orthodox Church led by three ambitious nationalist theologians Amfilohije Radovic, Artemije Radosavljevic, and Atanasije Jevtic emerged as a prominent force within the ecclesiastical establishment (Tomanic, 2001; Radic, 2002; Perica, 2002). Together with other nationalist institutions such as the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Serbian Union of Writers, the right-wing clergy -- followers of Nikolaj Velimirovic -- became the principal voice of Serbian ethnic nationalism. By 1991, Radovic, Jevtic, and Radosavljevic had all been ordained as bishops, and since then they have been wielding considerable influence within the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The newly acquired status of Velimirovic's supporters within the Church enabled them to embark on an intensive public campaign aimed at rehabilitating their hero. The campaign consisted of measures aimed at imposing positive interpretations of Nikolaj's life on public memory. In 1985, Bishop Jovan of Sabac and Valjevo founded the religious journal "Glas Crkve" (Voice of the Church), which was devoted to the popularization of Velimirovic's writings. In 1986, Atanasije Jevtic privately published the book "The New Chrysostom" by Artemije Radosavljevic, the first affirmative biography of Velimirovic written since World War II. In the late 1980s, "Glas Crkve" became the first publishing house in postcommunist Serbia to print Velimirovic's books.

In addition to various publishing activities, the Diocese of Sabac and Valjevo organized regular commemorative ceremonies dedicated to Velimirovic, including the transport in May 1991 of his remains from the United States to Serbia. All of these events were endorsed, attended, and publicized by the likes of Jevtic, Radovic, and Radosavljevic, as well as by the country's nationalist political and cultural elite.

Efforts aimed at restoring Velimirovic's reputation went hand in hand with the campaign to have him canonized. In fact, many of Velimirovic's advocates, both within the church and outside it, viewed canonization as the ultimate objective of their endeavors, as a symbolic act that would irrevocably confirm the bishop's return into the spiritual life of the Serbian nation, and mark the end of 40 years of vilification.

3. The First Stage Of The Campaign For Canonization: The Making Of A Religious 'Cult'
In the Orthodox Church, unlike in the Roman Catholic tradition, there are no formal procedures associated with canonization. Proclamation of saints is not preceded by a formal diocesan inquiry, sessions by the Congregation for the Causes for Canonization, or well-defined courses of action regarding the verification of miracles. Also, no distinction is made between "beatification" and "canonization." The Orthodox churches are believed to follow the tradition of early Christendom, when canonization was the means by which ecclesiastical authorities simply formalized the veneration of a martyr or a confessor already worshipped as such by the wider community of faithful. Slobodan Mileusnic, curator of the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church and one of the leading experts on Serbian saints, suggests for instance that "as opposed to the [Catholic] Western Church, which declares its saints through an almost administrative process, the Serbian Orthodox Church merely sanctions a cult that already exists" (cited in Grujic, 2000. See also Mileusnic, 2000; J. Velimirovic, 1991; Jevtic, 1987).

The less stringent rules for canonization in the Orthodox world are regarded by many Serbian clerics as the only authentic and apposite practice of declaring saints. In 1987, Archimandrite Atanasije Jevtic dismissed formal procedures followed by the Vatican as "papal innovation" and "frivolity before God" (Jevtic, 1987, p. 30).

Because of the enduring and widespread belief that canonization represents little more than an ecclesiastical formality by means of which the church ratifies an existing cult, in the early stages of the social construction of Velimirovic's sanctity in the late 1980s, Velimirovic's supporters invested considerable effort into demonstrating the existence of a "living cult" devoted to the bishop. Articles published in "Glas Crkve" and speeches delivered at commemorative ceremonies organized in Velimirovic's honor regularly emphasized the extensive veneration of Nikolaj among Serbs, which was said to date back to the 1950s. Public gatherings, commemorations, celebrations, literary evenings, etc. that were part of the campaign for rehabilitation were routinely interpreted as evidence for the vast following that Velimirovic has among the Serbian people. Although most of these events were organized by the pro-Velimirovic clique within the Serbian church, and were attended by a small proportion of the public, they were nonetheless flagged as reflecting the "will of the people," and as manifestations of the overwhelming public adulation of the bishop.

A key event in the popularization of Velimirovic's cult took place on the 31st anniversary of the bishop's death in March 1987. On this occasion, priests from the Diocese of Sabac and Valjevo -- led by Bishops Jovan Velimirovic and Amfilohije Radovic -- informally canonized Nikolaj and declared 18 March, the day of his death, a religious holiday in the diocese. An article published shortly afterward in "Glas Crkve" -- whose editors promptly adopted "Holy Bishop Nikolaj" as the journal's patron saint -- applauded the informal nature of this act and relished in its spontaneous and populist character. The article emphasized that the canonization "was not declared from the pulpit" but reflected the "will of the whole of the Serbian nation" (Rankovic, 1987, p. 26).

The unofficial canonization -- which, according to Archimandrite Atanasije Jevtic, was consistent with "the traditions of the Orthodox Church" (Jevtic, 1987, p. 31) -- helped to promote, institutionalize, and in some sense reify the alleged cult surrounding Velimirovic's name. Albeit unsanctioned by the Synod or the Council of Bishops, the canonization legitimized the emerging practices of referring to Velimirovic as the "Holy Bishop," the production of religious icons bearing his image, and even the building of chapels and churches in his honor. Also, this contentious decision was flagged as the "first step on the road to [full] canonization" (Velimirovic, 1991, p. 22). In that sense, it was a calculated attempt to put pressure on the higher church authorities to consider what was identified as the "will of the people" and formally declare Bishop Nikolaj a national saint.

* This article is part of a larger research project on the rehabilitation of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic in contemporary Serbian society funded by the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. The article is published with that institute's permission.

Jovan Byford is lecturer in Social Psychology in the Department of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom.


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