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Monday, June 28, 1999 Published at 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK

World: Europe

Serbia's church: Changing times

Elderly Serbs seek refuge in Kosovo's monasteries

By Religious Affairs Correspondent Jane Little

Only a few weeks ago Serbian Orthodox bishops were queuing up to condemn the Nato air strikes on Kosovo as "acts of barbarous aggression".

Kosovo: Special Report
Now, as it watches its sacred heartland being drained of Serbs, the church has turned its wrath on the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.

Patriarch Pavle's condemnation of Mr Milosevic for having betrayed his people marks his most outspoken attack yet, and underscores the urgency of the church's mission as it assumes the role of defender of Serbia's heartland.

Myth of the battle

The date and venue of the Patriarch's words carry added significance. The Patriarch made his appeal amid religious ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje.

A traditional bard sings the story of the Battle of the Kosovo
The mythologising of what Serbs remember as a great defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, with its central subtext of Serb resurrection, has constantly reinforced the notion that Kosovo is the "Jerusalem" of the Serb nation.

President Milosevic made it his political platform 10 years ago. But speaking at the Gracanica monastery near Pristina, Patriarch Pavle pointedly distanced this anniversary from nationalist politics.

"There will be no hypocrisy," he said. "The Godless leaders will take no part."

Kosovo - the church's heartland

The Serbian Orthodox Church, which claims the allegiance of the vast majority of Serbs, has long regarded itself as the protector of national and spiritual identity.

Paul Wood reports: "The Orthodox Church always seemed to walk had in hand with Serbian nationalism"
That identity is inextricably bound up with the geography, history and mythology of what the church calls Kosovo-Metohije, meaning Kosovo and the church-land.

The region's 1,300 churches and ruined monasteries remain testimonies for the church to a legacy of Serbian sacrifice and martyrdom.

Recent attacks on monasteries amid a mass exodus of Serbs from the province have fuelled a sense of indignation and even panic that the sacred heritage is being lost forever.

Patriarch's indignation

Two weeks ago the Holy Synod of the Church called on Mr Milosevic to resign, "in the interests of the people and their salvation".

Later the 87-year-old Patriarch Pavle announced his intention to relocate from Belgrade to the ancient Patriarchate of Pec in Kosovo in an attempt to persuade his flock to stay.

But most, including Kosovo's Bishop Artemije, had already fled their homes.

On arrival in Kosovo, Patriarch Pavle is reported to have been deeply disturbed by evidence of Serb atrocities against Kosovo Albanians, and the Orthodox Church is planning to defy the official Serb media silence on the subject, by publicising human rights abuses against Kosovo Albanians later this week.

Departure from nationalism

Such a statement would mark an evolutionary step for the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has traditionally been identified with Serbian ultra-nationalism.

Many clergy remain committed to the idea of a Greater Serbia, and the church has been criticised in the past for not speaking out against indicted war criminals.

But it has been quietly opposed to the regime of President Milosevic for a long time.

Although the church remains influential in Serbia, it knows that it needs more than the moral support of the World Council of Churches - which praised its "courageous" stance against President Milosevic - to prevent what it fears the history books may record as a final Serb defeat.

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