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Serbian Patriarch Irinej Buried In Belgrade After COVID Battle

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic pays his respects at the casket of Serbia's late patriarch, Irinej, at the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade on November 22.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic pays his respects at the casket of Serbia's late patriarch, Irinej, at the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade on November 22.

Senior clergy and Serbian officials entombed Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej in the crypt of the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade on November 22, two days after the 90-year-old church leader died battling COVID-19.

And while the church appealed for the public to respect ongoing anti-contagion measures amid the raging pandemic, there were some among the hundreds in attendance for the formal ceremony who did not wear masks, risky rites went ahead, and many in the crowd failed to physically distance.

Irinej, a staunch conservative with considerable political sway in the country and region, had led the church for a decade.

He tested positive for a coronavirus infection days after presiding over a funeral service attended by thousands for the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church's arm in Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije, who died in late October at age 82 after falling ill with COVID-19.

Serbian authorities had vowed that crowd-control measures would be implemented to handle the throng of expected mourners in and around the Balkans' biggest temple for Irinej's entombment.

High-Profile Mourners Pay Their Respects To Serbian Patriarch
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WATCH: High-Profile Mourners Pay Their Respects To Serbian Patriarch

In his eulogy on November 22, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said he regarded his relationship with Irinej as more than simply "a relationship between the patriarch and the president."

He hailed Irinej as having helped shape "a Serbia of peace, which understands [and]...which has no need to hate."

But he also called him an ally in nationalist Serbian causes including the dispute over partially recognized Kosovo and other pockets of Serbian unity in the region.

"There were no conflicts and quarrels between Serbs east and west of the Drina [River]," Vucic said, adding that Kosovo was "Irinej's biggest concern."

Others in attendance included Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Montenegrin Prime Minister-designate Zdravko Krivokapic, political representatives of Serb communities from around the region, and Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandar Bocan-Kharchenko, in addition to religious leaders of many faiths.

"Our patriarch loved Russia endlessly," Vucic told mourners, "but he was never against the West. He was convinced that we could build peace with them."

Political Presence

Vucic arrived at the ceremony accompanied by the controversial Serbian member of neighboring Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik.

Dodik, a fierce Serb nationalist who has called for independence for the Republika Srpska that along with the Muslim and Croat federation makes up Bosnia, said in his eulogy that Irinej "had the power to gather the people."

Irinej, he said, "erased all borders."

Serbia, with Russian support, has long refused to acknowledge the declaration of independence of its former province, Kosovo, in 2008.

The dispute is at the center of fresh impetus for internationally mediated talks aimed at normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina and thus clearing obstacles to international integration for both countries.

Serbian Believers Mourn Death Of Orthodox Patriarch
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Metropolitan Chrysostom, who together with the Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church performs the duties of the patriarch until the election of a new leader, said in his speech that Irinej "suffered because of schisms and divisions in the church" but that he had led the church "quietly, wisely, and patiently" for 10 years.

An envoy for the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, read a letter that said, among other things, Patriarch Irinej "shared the sufferings of those believers whose lives were interrupted by a terrible epidemic."

It is added that Irinej "did a lot for the unity of universal Orthodoxy and respect for the canon in the Orthodox Church" and that he was "a great friend of the Russian Orthodox Church" who "spoke several times in support of the persecuted canonical Orthodoxy in Ukraine."

The Serbian Orthodox Church was the first to support the Russian Orthodox Church after the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a decision in 2018 to recognize the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which Moscow still opposes.

The letter of Patriarch Kiril also wrote that the completion of the construction of the Church of St. Sava "will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest achievements of the service of Patriarch Irinej."

Many of those who entered St. Sava to bow before the late patriarch's robe were ignoring distancing measures.

And priests administered communion to the faithful following the liturgy with a single spoon.

Some of the mourners also approached the dais bearing the casket and kissed the protective glass that covered it.

The Serbian Orthodox Church's hierarchy announced on November 4 that Irinej had been hospitalized after testing positive for coronavirus, and he was intubated on November 19, one day before the announcement of his death.

Despite public-health warnings, Irinej had presided over the service in Podgorica of Amfilohije, which was attended by thousands with few masks and little heed for calls to maintain distancing.

Many of those present had kissed the hand of Amfilohije's corpse.

Serbia has had 121,120 confirmed coronavirus infections and 1,199 deaths in a population of around 7 million.

With reporting by Reuters