Pressure builds for Serb leader to leave
Serbia's church plans to host talks today to unite opposition efforts.
Following Serbia's loss of Kosovo this summer, antigovernment protests have swept the country. Pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to step down increases daily.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, as these diverse opposition groups prepare for intensified demonstrations this fall, the Serbian Orthodox Church has added its voice to the chorus.
Long supportive of the policies of the Milosevic regime, the church has emerged as one of the government's most strident critics. The church could be the one unifying element the opposition parties need to topple Mr. Milosevic.
Mirko Djordjevic, a noted sociologist, says the church's opposition, following the UN war crimes tribunal's indictment of Milosevic, and the fact that the Russians no longer support him, could mean his reign is over, even though so far he refuses to go. "The church has finally proclaimed him guilty for his regime and the four wars he led and lost."
And in a political landscape inhabited by discredited, squabbling rivals, many Serbs are beginning to see the church as the sole moral authority that can lead the country out of a decade of war, poverty, and international isolation.
"The church finally confronted Milosevic after NATO troops entered Kosovo. It was a huge shock to learn that we had lost Kosovo in every sense," says Mr. Djordjevic, who has written extensively on the role of the church in Serbia.
"Everybody else left Kosovo - the police, the military, and the administration," Djordjevic says. "Only the church remained. That's when the church began to feel guilty about the tragedy, because it at first had supported Milosevic."
The relationship has three parts
Djordevic has identified three phases in the relationship between Milosevic and Patriarch Pavle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Until the signing of the Dayton peace accords in 1995, the church supported the regime, and Pavle is said to have had close contacts to the Bosnian Serb leadership.
In the second phase, the church gradually began distancing itself from Milosevic. During antigovernment protests in 1997, Pavle blessed student demonstrators and condemned the regime.
The third phase began in June, when foreign troops - as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force - entered Kosovo. Most Serbs consider the disputed province to be the nation's holy land; the historical seat of the patriarchate is in Pec, a town in western Kosovo now devoid of ethnic Serbs save for a handful of Orthodox priests who refused to flee.
During the course of Milosevic's deadly crackdown against ethnic Albanians, the church had repeatedly called for reconciliation and condemned the regime's policy of ethnic persecution.
Now the church is in a position to maintain the moral high ground by pinning the blame for the loss of Kosovo on Milosevic and openly mentioning Serbian culpability in crimes against ethnic Albanians.
Recently the patriarch said that given the choice between a "smaller Serbia" and a crime, he would choose the former. "If the last Serb were to be preserved only through a crime, then again I don't accept it. Let there be none of us," said Pavle.
"The people are listening and understanding this," says Djordjevic. "And the number of people who understand this is rising."