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.
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."
After 50 years of communist rule in Yugoslavia, the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church is difficult to measure. While about 90 percent of Serbs are nominally Orthodox, less than half of that number actually attend church services on a regular basis.
In the past, however, the church played a critical role in defining and preserving the Serbian identity, especially during the four centuries of Ottoman rule in Serbia.
"For almost 400 years there was no institution [in Serbia] except the church. During that time it preserved the idea of a nation, state, and the desire for independence," says Tomislav Jeremic, a professor of history and a leading member of the Serbian Renewal Movement, the biggest opposition party, which harks back to the country's traditional values.
"Today it seems that the church's influence is small," says Mr. Jeremic. "But you can't find a Serbian family - even among those who are declared atheists - whose children are not baptized, who don't conduct burials according to church custom, and who don't celebrate the holidays."
While communists in the Soviet Union and eastern-bloc countries attempted to eradicate religion altogether, Yugoslavia's communist rulers were not nearly as harsh. "Only the establishment was obligated to show its atheism, but the percentage of people who ruled was small," says Jeremic. "The rest of the people remained Christian."
Still, the church was largely marginalized as an institution, and only when Milosevic rode to power on a wave of extreme nationalism in the late 1980s did churches around Serbia begin to fill up. The wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia took on the character of religious conflicts, with Orthodox Serbs pitted against Roman Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims.
"The church's biggest mistake was that it accepted Milosevic's nationalistic ideology. It let itself be manipulated," says Djordjevic, the sociologist. "A few years back, the church was not just a witness but an actor. But with the shock of losing Kosovo, it started repenting."
Because of its universal appeal as the only institution that has escaped the regime's clutches, the church is now invited to high-level discussions with opposition parties as they plan a large rally in Belgrade in 10 days that will coincide with the Orthodox holiday of the Transfiguration.
Church downplays role
The church itself downplays any role it will have in toppling the regime.
"The church doesn't have such a big influence on public life, as is the case in the rest of Europe," says the Rev. Radovan Bigovic, a professor at the Belgrade University School of Theology. "It's trying to take indirect influence by appealing to the people to improve the political and economic situation. The church doesn't have any other instruments other than making appeals."
Djordjevic agrees that while the church will not play a direct political role, "it will take part in the changes we need not to drown. This is a very important moment, because it fits into the ancient tradition of the Church caring for the national conscience."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society