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Interview: Radicals Will Continue To Influence Serbian Orthodox Church

The new patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Irinej Gavrilovic of Nis
The new patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Irinej Gavrilovic of Nis
The unexpected election of moderate Bishop Irinej Gavrilovic of Nis as the new patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church does not mean the influence of more radical priests, like Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro, will subside. That's according to Milorad Tomanic, a Belgrade-based expert on the Orthodox Church and author of a recently published book, "The Serbian Church In the War, and The Wars Within It." RFE/RL's Podgorica correspondent, Dimitrije Jovicevic, spoke to Tomanic about the future role of the church in Serbia.

RFE/RL: What does the selection of Irinej of Nis say about the direction the church is headed in? Was it a step toward reform and openness? Will the focus be more on morals than ideology?

Milorad Tomanic:
As people keep saying, the patriarch isn't the pope. He has more honor than other priests, but not that much more power – certainly not the kind of power the pope has. And his influence both within the church and outside isn't that strong. His personality can set an example for people, to focus more on morals, to carry the church into more peaceful times. We can only hope for this.

Three conditions have to be met in order for this to happen. The first is that the bishops keep to their oaths. In particular, I'm talking about the Jeeps and German cars with their tinted windows [that many use for their transportation]. This can all be done without being so flashy.

The next is that they reform their own relations amongst themselves, which should be much better than they are.

And the third thing is that some people who were prominent in the 1990s – the main players in Serbia and elsewhere – have to withdraw from the scene. By that I mean primarily Metropolitan Amfilohije [of Montenegro] and [Bosnian Serb Bishop Vasilije] Kacavenda.

What brought doubt into my heart and my soul was a web video I saw showing the newly chosen patriarch holding hands with Bishop Vasilije, who is looking confident, as though the patriarch belongs to him. This could just be my own fear. Still, I hope that the church is sailing into calmer waters.

RFE/RL: Will the church be able to pacify its radical Bosnian members, who are led by Bishop Vasilije? There's a YouTube clip of him that has become quite popular, showing him giving chauvinist, almost war-mongering speeches. Is the church ready to objectively assess the role it played in the Balkan wars of the '90s, and acknowledge that it may be contributing to similar unrest in the future?

That's why I felt wary when I saw the video of Vasilije walking hand-in-hand with Irinej after he was chosen to be the new patriarch. I even thought that perhaps Vasilije was the one who made it possible for Irinej to be elected patriarch, by using the votes from the Bosnian lobby. The bishops will say that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit. But doubts always exist. There's always talk of authorities influencing the choice of patriarch. I think this is a big question, and I don't expect any big solutions in that respect.

RFE/RL: Amfilohije, the metropolitan of Montenegro, was considered one of the key contenders for the patriarchal post. What kind of role and influence do you envision him having in the church now?

Amfilohije was one of the key figures in the church in the '90s and beyond. We can say a lot of good things about him; I really don't want to be one-sided. He's a polyglot. He's extremely knowledgeable about all things related to the teachings of the church. But he's one of those people who refuses to stick to his areas of expertise. He also has to have hobbies. And for him, politics is a hobby.

I think that he'll continue to have a strong influence on the church. Everything he's gotten his hands on – whether on behalf of Serbs in Bosnia, Serbs in Croatia, or Serbs in Kosovo – has failed. Everything has fallen through. He talked about Serbia and Montenegro staying together as one state. Nothing came of that.

I think it would be good – I dream about this – if he and some of the other bishops just go to Serbia's Sveta Gora monastery and spend their last years there, giving us great works on theology, the things they know well, and leaving politics to those who are softer and more willing to compromise.

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