BELGRADE -- The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 95-year-old Patriarch Pavle, has died after a lengthy battle with age-related illness, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.
His death ends nearly two decades of leadership that spanned one of the most painful chapters in Serbian history.
His rise to the patriarchate in 1990 -- soon after Slobodan Milosevic had become president of an increasingly divided Yugoslavia -- placed Pavle in the eye of a gathering storm. Pavle's tenure as patriarch sparked fierce disputes over the actions of the Church as nationalist and ethnic conflagrations spread through the Balkans.
"Destiny gave Patriarch Pavle the role of leading the church in an evil time," Mirko Djordjevic, a religious-affairs analyst in Serbia, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "That was an evil time for people and for the state, as it was a time of dissolution and a loss of basic values -- within the church and within society as well."
The patriarch had not attended to the daily running of church affairs since a frail Pavle made an unsuccessful plea in October 2008 to stand down as the leader of Eastern Orthodox Serbs.
Bishop Amfilohije, acting head of the church's Holy Synod, said in a statement that Pavle died at a special apartment at Belgrade's Military Hospital, where he had been treated for age-related ailments for the past two years.
The Serbian government declared a three-day period of mourning for November 16-18.
President Boris Tadic called the patriarch's passing "a huge loss for Serbia." Tadic added that he'd lost a confidant whom he frequently consulted on complex issues.
Thousands of politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens were gathering at churches and other locations in Belgrade and around the country soon after reports of his death emerged.
Pavle's body was transported from the Military Hospital to the seat of the patriarchate, also in the capital, as the pealing of bells marked the passing of a figure whose influence was frequently exerted behind the scenes.
Pavle's body will lie in repose at Saborna Crkva church until a funeral service that is expected to take place early this week.
Bells also rang out in Gracanica, in Kosovo, where Pavle spent more than three decades before he moved to the Serbian capital.
Pavle ascended to the patriarchate in 1990, soon after Slobodan Milosevic had become president of an increasingly divided Yugoslavia.
His actions in the face of surging nationalism and violence in the region, including warm relations with Serbian paramilitaries and figures like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, earned him many critics.
Defenders point out the complexity of the times, and highlight his meetings with the political opposition.
The Serbian government in 2005 named Pavle the honorary president of its Fund for Kosovo and Metohija, an archaic reference to what was then a UN-administered province whose ethnic Albanian leadership was seeking independence from Belgrade.
An extraordinary session of church leaders should be convened in the coming weeks to name Pavle's successor.
"That process will last a month and a half -- altogether probably 40 days -- and that will be an occasion to pacify all the clashes that are shaking the church, synod, and assembly, and that are popularly called the 'fight for inheritance' but which we all know are a fight for power," Djordjevic told RFE/RL.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is an independent member of the Orthodox communion and wields influence over worshipers in Serbia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, as well as representational churches around the world.
Estimates of adherents range widely, from around 7 million to as high 11 million.
written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting in Belgrade by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Nebojsa Grabez