BELGRADE (Reuters) - The Serbian Orthodox Church plans to change its name to stress its link with Kosovo, Serbia’s ex-southern province that won independence in 2008, in a move seen as opposition to Belgrade’s efforts to mend ties with Pristina.
Serbian public life is secular but the Orthodox Church wields considerable conservative, at times nationalist, influence, not only in Serbia but in neighbouring countries with Serb minorities such as Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
During the wars that tore apart old Yugoslavia in the 1990s, hardline Orthodox clerics publicly blessed Serb nationalist paramilitaries who committed war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Patriarch Irinej told Belgrade-based Kurir newspaper on Thursday that under a draft revision of its internal constitution, the Serbian Orthodox Church would be renamed Serbian Orthodox Church-Pec Patriarchate.
The move is a sign of church resistance to efforts by President Aleksandar Vucic and the government to improve relations with Kosovo, one of the conditions for Belgrade to be able to join the European Union.
“This is a sort of a message which indicates opposition (to state policies)...Views of churches do not always reflect state views about territories,” Zoran Stojiljkovic, a lecturer with Belgrade’s Faculty of Political Sciences, told Reuters.
Kosovo has a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, but many Serbs continue to see the country, where monasteries still dot the landscape, as the cradle of their Orthodox civilisation and fiercely opposed its 2008 independence declaration.
A small Serb minority has remained in Kosovo since its 1998-99 guerrilla uprising against Serbian rule.
In January influential Archbishop Amfilohije said he feared Vucic’s policies were “leading to the betrayal of Kosovo”.
The Serbian Patriarchate of Pec existed in what is now the mainly ethnic Albanian Kosovo town of the same name from 1346 to 1766, when it was abolished by the Ottoman Turks.
After regaining independence in 1879, the Serbian Orthodox Church retained link with the Pec Patriarchate and styled its primates as archbishops of Pec and patriarchs of Serbia.
“Pec remains ... (a testimony) to our past, of patriarchs and archbishops, and no matter what happened, Pec remains the historical centre of our church,” the Kurir newspaper quoted Irinej as saying.
Since 2008, Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by 115 states, but Serbia’s allies Russia and China have refused to do so and are preventing its entry into the United Nations.
The Patriarchate in Belgrade was unavailable for comment.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Mark Heinrich