(RFE/RL) -- Dozens of bishops and other clergy from the Serbian Orthodox Church gathered today at the Patriarchate in Belgrade to begin the process of voting for their new leader.
The vote is being conducted by the church's highest body, the Holy Assembly of Bishops. The process, which involves an original voting system that includes an element of chance, may end with a new patriarch being picked as early as today.
The previous patriarch, Pavle, died in November following a long illness at the age of 95. He had headed the church for almost 20 years, a period that included the ethnic wars of the 1990s, which accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Many rounds of voting are expected to take place amid feuding and jostling among the voters, in an original, complex election system to be held behind closed doors. Surprise Result?
Theologian Mirko Djordjevic tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service the process could produce a surprise result.
"According to some statements, obstructions are very possible. It can all end up with a big surprise, as in the election of a bishop who has not taken sides so far and has not been prominent, as was the case with Patriarch Pavle," Djordjevic said.
The body of Patriarch Pavle is carried in a procession during his funeral in Belgrade in November.
According to the 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.
Following prayers, 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 a final envelope, thereby removing the process of all human interference. Likely Favorite
The bishop of Nis, Irinej, expressed confidence that the new patriarch would be known today.
"We all hope and expect that this will all pass well and that the investiture will take place on Sunday [January 24]." he said.
One of the candidates considered a likely favorite is Bishop Amfilohije Radovic, who is seen as an anti-Western hard-liner. Amfilohije served as caretaker for much of the past two years, during Pavle's long hospitalization.
The church is divided between conservatives opposed to openness to other churches and Western influences in Serbian society, and reformists who want the church to be more open and modern.
However, one of the younger bishops, Fotije, said in a recent interview with the daily "Blic" that in fact there are "many more" than two main camps. He continued: "We have 80-year-old bishops, educated before World War II, who have huge experience. Then there are bishops under 40, who are well-educated in the era of digital communication."
There have been reports about an alleged power struggle between the Bosnian Serb and Serbian lobbies within the church.
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 the former Yugoslavia.