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Faithful Mourn Serbian Patriarch Pavle In Belgrade

Funeral Of Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle
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WATCH: The memorial service in Belgrade for Patriarch Pavle

Huge crowds have turned out for a funeral in Belgrade for Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pavle, who led the church for almost 20 years before his death at the age of 95.

Pavle took the leadership of the Serbian church at a time of surging Serbian nationalism as the former Yugoslavia collapsed into violence.

His legacy is indelibly linked to that painful era in Serbian history.

Up to half a million people are estimated to have turned out for the event in a city of roughly 1.2 million.

The crowds began assembling along the route of the cortege before dawn. Some people wept as the remains of the patriarch were taken through the streets from the Patriarchate's Saborna Church to the Belgrade Orthodox cathedral of Saint Sava.

In the Saborna Church, Pavle's body had lain in repose in an open casket, clad in green and gold embroidered vestments.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Istanbul -- the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians -- attended the funeral, as did clergy and dignitaries from Russia, the Czech Republic, Albania, and other countries, including Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI's envoy, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Later in the day, Pavle's body was to be taken from Saint Sava to the Rakovica Monastery, on the outskirts of the city, for interment in a private ceremony.

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The event has received saturation coverage from the Serbian media. Highlighting the importance of the occasion, the Serbian government has asked the commercial sector to keep shops closed for the day and to give employees the time off.

Some Serbia-based critics suggest that officials uncertain of their own popularity or authority are trying to exploit the spectacle to their own advantage.

"Those currently in power do not feel very safe, and so they are looking for support from the church, which does have real power and which is, in a certain sense, even more powerful than the state," sociologist Zagorka Golubovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "They want to use these types of occasions to show how much they are devoted to the church, in order to acquire some of its powers by association."

Patriarch Pavle is a controversial figure, because of his leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church through the ethnic wars of the 1990s, which accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.

He was criticized for failing to prevent rising nationalism and aggression against Muslims in Bosnia and Catholics in Croatia. He had many critics because of his warm relations with Serbian paramilitaries and with figures like Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader now being tried for war crimes.

His defenders point out the complexity of the times, and refer to his meetings with the pro-democracy opposition after the wars.

Pavle himself was well aware of the difficulties of his position. Here is a comment in an interview he gave some time before his death:

"One cannot choose the times that one is born into and that he has to live through. That does not depend on him," Pavle said some time before his death. "But it is up to him to decide how to act in those times, whether as a human being or not."

A successor as patriarch will be chosen by the church in the coming weeks. Bishop Amfilohije, widely regarded as more of a hard-liner than Pavle on issues of territorial integrity and religious doctrine, and Bishops Irinej, from northern Serbia, and Grigorije from Bosnia, are said to be among the officials vying to replace Pavle.