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Henning Klingen {*}

From Myths to Reform


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 40/2010, P. 437-441
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the years of war Serbia does not only seek to join the European Union but is also asking about its national identity between East and West. Also the Orthodox Church is thus challenged.


It stands there majestically and raises languorously its dome towers into the blue sky: The Cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade. A white shiny magnificent building, which is often called the largest Serbian Orthodox church in the world, caressed by fountains and shady trees in the middle of the city. Tourists expectantly enter the church - and look instead at splendidly painted vaults at bare, brittle concrete, steel girders and scaffolding. Powerful Neo-Renaissance. The outside was completed in 2007, until 2012 the interior finish shall follow. Only a few kilometers away from the cathedral there are lovingly restored Baroque buildings - now home to ministries and government offices. Their facades are reflected in the shiny glass of the bank towers, in between a bombed-out office block. The building that previously harbored the General Staff of the Yugoslav armed forces was destroyed by NATO planes in April 1999. A memorial, rounded by crowded buses and honking motorcades.


Ruins and Construction Sites

Already the cityscape points to the tension in which Serbia, the vibrant centre of the Balkans and its National Orthodox Church are. Many things are in a process of emergence, but the scars of war are not healed yet. At every turn, you meet recent history, often in the form of accusatory question to the Western visitor, "Why the hell did you throw bombs on us?" But the ruin also shows the inability of the Serbian state to free its own administrative structures from the late socialist fustiness and to reduce the jungle of different interests. Just recently, an investor who wanted to renovate the building has thrown in the towel in despair.

As regards foreign policy, Serbia is due to its uncompromising position in the issue of Kosovo's independence largely isolated and is always viewed with skepticism because of the suspicion of lack of cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal, at the same time Serbia has to struggled with internal problems. The country is afflicted by a seasonal unemployment of up to twenty per cent. The pro-European government of President Boris Tadic is a shaky coalition cobbled together by thirteen parties and has only a majority of two votes in Parliament. Major reform steps are thus almost impossible.

On the other hand, the Serbian Orthodox Church, which - like the cathedral - makes on the surface a united, bright impression, but upon closer examination it resembles a construction site. For example, there is a huge backlog of reforms, which has grown during the tenure of Patriarch Pavle, who after a long illness deceased last November. There are power struggles for religious restructuring (as e.g. the character of dioceses abroad) and for an ecumenical re-orientation theologically open to reforms. A part of the episcopate is still imbued with political, historical and cultural national myths, and significantly burdens the faith community through radical views. The dismissal of the controversial Kosovo Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) in spring on grounds of misappropriation of funds was here only a first outward sign of the transition process in which the Orthodox Church is since the death of the last patriarch and the election of new Patriarch Irinej (Gavrilovic) in January.

The one who wants to trace this process of transition to its source, wants to imagine the conflicting groups, and wants to dive into this Christian and yet alien world has to leave Belgrade and has to travel through Vojvodina, the history-charged landscape rich in Monasteries in the north of Serbia.

Novi Sad with 250.000 inhabitants is the capital of the Vojvodina province, about eighty kilometers north of Belgrade. Cafes and bars line the streets of the fashionable inner city. At night, countless students and young people fill the streets and pubs. In the center is the redly shimmering palace of the Orthodox Bishop Irinej (Bulovic). Polite and in fluent German, he receives the group of Austrian and German journalists. The bishop comes straight to the point. He underlines the good ecumenical climate and the interreligious dialogue which he cultivates in his diocese. In addition to the orthodox majority, also Protestant Christians, Jews and Muslims live in the city. The Catholics are with 30,000 believers even a fairly large minority. Mutual visits and joint actions are a matter of course, also the cooperation in the recently established Inter-Religious Council is functioning smoothly, said Irinej. This is historically also the result of the multi-religious heritage of the Habsburg period. Until the First World War the city was an army base and thus a magnet for the settlement of Hungarians, Slovaks, but also for about 500,000 Danube Swabians.


Prayer as Therapy

You realize quickly that Bishop Irinej is a champion of reform and modernity - and an influential man who is internationally recognized as a prominent Orthodox theologian and is considered to be a close confidant of the patriarch with the same name.

Just a few miles further, you see the walls of the monastery Kovilj shine in warm red and yellow colours. The church tower soars powerfully into the brilliant evening sky; a stork rises from the spire and is slowly gliding over the lush green of the surrounding fields. For twenty years 25 monks have been extending and rehabilitating the impressive monastery. With pride they present its youngest showpiece - the chapel freshly painted with bright icons - to visitors. All monks have studied, many have traveled through Western European countries. As part of a restitution law the monastery recently got back lands and facilities previously expropriated under Tito. There is an own candle manufactury and a distillery, but for its strong social commitment the monastery enjoys recognition throughout the country. The monastery e.g. in five field offices cares for about hundred drug-addicted teenagers. An intense spiritual guidance has above all proved to be a therapeutic agent, says Abbot Porfiry. Meanwhile, talks with the Ministry of Health are about to be completed, in order to include the monastic offer in the official national drug program.



An unusual step - especially from the perspective of the monastery, because social commitment was usually of little importance in Orthodoxy - apart from immediate emergency aid and feeding the poor. An Orthodox social doctrine is still under development.

Kovilj monastery is considered to be a reform monastery. In the mouth of the Abbot of Kovilj, even the usually uniform response to the Kosovo issue by the Serbian Orthodox Church's gets first cracks. Of course, the Kosovo remained Serb heartland, monastery land, the heart of Serbia, he first demonstrates loyalty, but then he said that also the church knew of course that it is unlikely that a veto against Kosovo's proclaimed independence from Serbia, which has already been recognized by many States, will change much. What matters now is to organize in practical terms a peaceful co-existence of the Serb minority and the Muslim Albanian majority.


Strict Liturgy

You can become acquainted with the other side while visiting Fruška Gora, a low mountain range near Novi Sad. Eighteen monasteries are here, nestled on lush green hills or fitted in lush wooded valleys where they have fairly withstood already the Ottomans, and later the Nazis and socialism. For centuries they have been cultivating the core of Orthodox Christianity: the tradition. And with it they find followers. Increasingly younger monks set up their own monasteries and turn away from modernization with its pathological excesses, a process that since the end of socialism rapidly accelerated. Secularization and apostasy are considered to be its worst result.

Take for example the Monastery of Staro Hopovo. At the end of a narrow valley, known only to insiders, one comes across a small settlement consisting of a tiny, newly constructed church and a small commercial and residential building. Six young, hardly thirty years old monks have been investigating here for four years the legacy of the founding fathers and the magic of the beginning. Piece by piece, they build a new monastery on the ruins of the old one, which was set up in 1546 and destroyed under the Ottomans. Already during their years of study the monks have joined forces, with the aim to renounce the world, which in their eyes is in a state of a moral decline. They want to cultivate the old austerity in the form of a continuous liturgy.

Not far away is Velika Remeta, the oldest monastery on the Fruška Gora. Its roots go back to the 13th century. Here, too, the wounds of the destruction by the Ottomans in the 18th century have deeply branded themselves on the collective memory. On this Sunday morning, columns of believers, pilgrims and visitors huddle on the narrow forest path, past elegant villas of wealthy Belgrades, but also through poor villages which are living on sidewalk sale of the abundantly available fruits and vegetables. There is rose and lavender scent in the air. Inside the massive monastery walls a green oasis with a small fountain and a church painted with magnificent frescoes is waiting for the visitors. Velika Remeta is a magnet - famous for its charismatic abbot and the Agape with the monks in the old refectory after the service.

It is difficult for eyes that are acquainted with the Latin liturgy to follow the solemn Byzantine rite, with its overwhelming abundance of liturgical symbols. Incense is in the air when the festive songs in the traditional Church Slavonic begin. There is a strict order among the visitors when they go to Communion. Women cover their hair with head scarves, young girls stoop over and humbly look down while receiving Communion from the spoon. One demonstratively lets large families go first.



In the back of the church women - also young ones - go down on their knees in prayer in front of a portrait of Mary. During the Agape, almost three hours later, wine bottles are circling in the refectory. Coffee and biscuits are served at the expense of the monastery, and the abbot is - like an entertainer - once again speaks with in a rolling gait about the sermon or answers questions from the congregation. People are looking for security and orientation, said Abbot Stephen. The following week will show whether his answers to social and moral issues give actually support to life outside the monastry.


The Legacy of the Habsburgs

On the way back to Belgrade wheat and corn fields are lining the road as far as the eye can reach. Vojvodina is considered to be the breadbasket of Serbia. We pass Sremski Karlovci, a small lively town with a rich history. For it has been the scene of the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Poland, Russia and the Republic of Venice pan-European, which was important for all of Europe. Even today the "Chapel of Peace", which is maintained by the small Catholic parish, reminds of this major event, when on January 26, 1699 the signing of the treaty ended a war that had for decades kept Europe in suspense.

After the second siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire in 1683, Austria, Poland and Venice formed the military alliance "Holy League". The Ottomans were step by step pushed back and finally under Prince Eugene at Zenta in 1697 defeated. The Peace of Karlowitz - chosen as a neutral site between the Habsburg Peterwardein and the Ottoman Belgrade - should finally induce the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire and at the same time the rise of the Habsburg monarchy to a world power.

The epoch-making geopolitical changes had also for the Serbian Orthodox Church far-reaching consequences. Since the mid 14th century, under Ottoman rule, the national church unity had already been crushed, and the Patriarchate of Pec had to be installed repeatedly, but after the Peace of Karlowitz the fear of pillaging Ottomans was so great that in 1716 the Patriarchate was relocated into the "Christian" north, into the realm of the Hapsburg - to Karlowitz.

In the wake of the First World War, Europe has been restructured. With some areas of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Serbia became first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and finally the Kingdom of Yugoslavia - and in 1920 the Patriarchate went back to its traditional place in the monastery of Pec. Down to the present day, the official title of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch "Metropolitan of Belgrade and Sremski Karlovci" reminds of this chapter of church history.

From the beginning, church and nation state were closely intertwined with each other. In 1219 St. Sava (Nemanjic), who came from a Serbian ruling dynasty, stood up as a monk for the Church's autonomy (autocephaly) of the Church, for their independence from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. His insistence was crowned with success. Two years later he crowned his brother Stefan first king of Serbia. What followed was a golden age of harmony of church and state with the highlight of the elevation of the Serbian Orthodox Church to an autonomous Patriarchate in 1346 and the simultaneous coronation of the then Serbian ruler Dusan as Emperor.


Nation and National Church

For a long time, the State could politically rely on the church. She supplied its mythological sources and legitimized the rule. The church in turn could rely on the state and its protective hand. It was only under Tito that the church-state relationship cooled down. But the old channels could surprisingly be revived in the early nineties. Orthodoxy grew - as almost everywhere in the post-socialist countries - and with it the confident hope grew of being able to take the splendour of the old unity up. Curse and misery of this renewed unity, however, became quickly visible under the regime of Milosevic, who knew how to play with the help of the church on the keyboard of national mythology and presented the ugly face of nationalism.



The most well known example for it is the speech Milosevic's speech of 1989 at the commemorative ceremony of the 600th Anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje in Kosovo. Up to the present day the historic battle between the Serbs and the Ottomans is remembered in songs and stories as "zero hour" of the Serbian identity. In front of a million listeners Milosevic made use of this myth, in order to summon a "Kosovo heroism that has been inspiring our creativity and nurtured our pride for six centuries." The War Crimes tribunal in The Hague assessed this speech - "now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles" - as evidence of Milosevic's militant nationalist attitude.


European Union and Kosovo

Burdened by the recent war history, today the unity of religion, mythology and politics is only partly reliable. The rapid modernization of society and the progressive approximation to the European Community characterize the politics of the day. Pragmatism has priority over pathos. With reference to the many Serbian monasteries and churches, several bishops and church representatives admittedly try to idealize Kosovo as "spiritual center", "sanctuary of Serbia" or as the actual birthplace of the Serbian nation. However, these arguments are no longer so persuasive, certainly not among the younger generation. A historical point zero, a magical place [Kraftort] from where identity and legitimacy can be drawn does no longer exist, if it has ever existed at all.

"With history that is mythologically glossed over, you cannot make politics", the Austrian Ambassador to Serbia, Clemens Koja, puts it in a nutshell. This insight is only slowly gained in the church, which is often used only for political stooge-services or even used for decoration, as in the case of Pavle I's funeral, which was grandiosely staged by the State.

The tall diplomat has been conducting for two years the business in Belgrade. On 22 December 2009, the country has taken an important step, when it submitted a formal request for EU membership. A further step was the gesture of Parliament, fifteen years after the massacre in Srebrenica, to condemn officially the atrocities of the Bosnian war and to express its condolences to the relatives of the victims - even if the resolution got only an extremely narrow majority and was condemned in the strongest terms by the nationalists.

But Kosovo will remain a "real obstacle" both in terms of domestic and foreign policy, said Koja, since the EU integration of the country stands or falls with the Serbian Kosovo policy. The Serbian government deplores e.g. that Berlin makes inter the recognition of an independent Kosovo a condition for accession negotiations. Austria, which is by far the largest investor in Serbia, enjoys a high reputation, and has great economic influence, even belongs to the first countries which recognized the independence of Kosovo.

However, Serbia is time and again shooting itself in the foot, so Koja, when it - as currently - introduces a resolution on Kosovo in the United Nations. It describes the "unilateral separation" of Kosovo as "unacceptable method" and contradicts thus the legal opinion by International Court of Justice in The Hague of this summer. There, the compatibility of the declaration of autonomy with international law was expressly stated. Due to repeated pressure from the European Union, Serbia has now mitigated the resolution and signaled willingness to engage in dialogue.


The new Patriarch

The Patriarchate building receives its guests with overawing, massive gray columns. It resembles a fortress, which seeks to resist the storms of a societal modernization that despises religion. But the reception by Patriarch Irinej is open and cordial. Over an hour he makes time for a frank conversation. His eyes sparkle alertly, despite the long gray beard you cannot tell that he is 80 years old.



Protocol courtesies are exchanged, the good relationship with Austria is emphasized - and then upon request, the idea is confirmed that the diocese of Central Europe shall be restructured by creating a separate diocese in Austria. About 300.000 Serbs are living in Austria. An own bishop would be "an important contact person", says the patriarch.


Difficult Legacy

With regard to Serbia's pursuit of EU membership the Serbian Orthodox bishops are divided. The now deposed Artemije e.g. stated in his day to the newspaper "Danas" that the European integration threatens "to replace the values of the Gospel by 'European values', which are pagan and by and large against the Gospel", whereas Patriarch Irinej adopts a softer tone: there is no reason to be afraid of the European Union, if Europe respects the Serbian identity, culture and religion. "We certainly want to belong to this family of European peoples."

The Swiss Institute "Faith in the Second World", which observes the ecclesio-political developments in Eastern Europe, sees the Serbian Orthodox Church at a crossroads. It is not yet clear in which direction she will develop. Irinej has taken the leadership in a difficult situation. The main challenge is, apart from the power struggles within the church, the question of a new communication with the non-religious, civic organizations and intellectuals throughout the Balkans. Not least, the Church is criticized because of her negative attitude towards the efforts to elucidate the Yugoslav disintegration wars and the war crimes. Not a few Serbs complain of a too strong influence on government and society. To date, the church has not answered the question how she sees her role.

The intention of the Patriarch to invite Pope Benedict XVI to Nis, as part of the celebrations scheduled for 2013 on the occasion of the 1700-year anniversary of the Edict of Milan, might have no less explosive force within the church. What is celebrated then is the edict that goes back to Emperor Constantine. It ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and has thus laid the foundation for the rise of Christianity to a world religion.


Papal Visit in 2013?

An invitation to the pope would be an ecumenical symbol. It would be very welcomed both by the Catholic Archbishop Stanislav Hocevar of Belgrade and the Apostolic Nunciature. According to Hocevar, Christianity breathes after all "with two lungs" - the Orthodox and the Latin-Western Christianity. A papal visit to Serbia on the occasion of the jubilee could remind of that fact and strengthen the position of the 500.000 Catholics in the country. Giorgio Lingua, the representative of the Apostolic Nuncio in Belgrade, confirmed that the cooperation between the state and the Catholic Church has made progress. A few months ago the Catholic dioceses, parishes and religious orders achieved recognition as a legal person; this means a huge relief above all for the institutions of Caritas.

On 3 October the new patriarch will be officially "enthroned" in the monastery Pul in Kosovo, the original seat of the Patriarchate. Without consultation with art historians, in 2009 Bishop Artemije has the monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, painted in bright rusty red, alledgedly to make it more visible in the narrow Rugova Gorge. The Plenary Assembly of Bishops, which takes place immediately after the enthronement, will show whether the charisma of awakening will also come symbolically from Pul. The questions of reform are put.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'