Patriarch Pavle; voice for peace in Balkans

Patriarch Pavle took over the church in 1990 as the collapse of communism ended years of state policy of repressing religion. Patriarch Pavle took over the church in 1990 as the collapse of communism ended years of state policy of repressing religion. (AFP/Getty Images/File 2005
By Dusan Stojanovic
Associated Press / November 16, 2009

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BELGRADE, Serbia - Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pavle, who called for peace and conciliation during the Balkan ethnic wars of the 1990s but failed to openly condemn extreme Serb nationalism, died yesterday. He was 95 and had been hospitalized for two years with heart and lung problems.

There have been reports of an internal struggle over who would succeed Patriarch Pavle, a respected theologian and linguist known for his humility and modesty. The favorite is influential Bishop Amfilohije, a hard-liner known for his anti-Western and ultranationalist stands.

The 7-million member church said its highest body, the Holy Synod, could announce today when Patriarch Pavle’s successor will be chosen. At least 40 days must pass after his death before a new patriarch can be elected.

Patriarch Pavle took over the church in 1990 just as the collapse of communism ended years of state policy of repressing religion. He often spoke against violence in the ethnic wars that Orthodox Serbs fought against Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims during the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.

“God help us understand that we are human beings and that we must live as human beings, so that peace would come into our country and bring an end to the killing,’’ Patriarch Pavle had appealed - mostly in vain - in 1991 as fighting raged between Serbs and Croats over disputed territories in Croatia.

“It is only the will of the devil that is served by this war,’’ the patriarch was quoted as saying in 1992 but stopped short of naming names, notably not explicitly going against the ultranationalist policies of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s former president, which triggered the wars.

The Serbian Church broke with its tradition of formal neutrality in 2000, openly urging Milosevic to step down after the regime’s humiliating defeat in 1999 following NATO bombing that ended the Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

The church’s demand for Milosevic’s resignation - which he ignored - helped lead to the popular revolt that ousted the autocratic president in October 2000. Milosevic died in 2006 during his trial on war crimes charges at a UN tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

Bells tolled from Serbian churches after the news of Patriarch Pavle’s death and the state-run television aired documentaries about his life.

Patriarch Pavle’s body was displayed in an open coffin at Belgrade’s main Saborna Church, with top officials and clergy attending the prayers. Thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects to the highly popular patriarch.

The church said Patriarch Pavle’s funeral will be held Thursday at a monastery in the Belgrade suburb of Rakovica.

President Boris Tadic said Patriarch Pavle’s death was a “huge loss’’ for the nation. Tadic described him as “one of those people who by their very existence bring together the entire nation.

“His departure is my personal loss too,’’ Tadic said, saying he had often consulted with the patriarch about crucial decisions.

After Milosevic’s departure, the patriarch launched a damage-control campaign for Kosovo, struggling to rally international support for protection of ancient Serbian churches and monasteries that came under attacks by Kosovo’s mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians.

Critics, however, faulted the patriarch and other Serbian religious leaders for failing to be equally vocal when Serb troops previously destroyed Catholic churches and Muslim mosques in Croatia and Bosnia.

Patriarch Pavle was born as Gojko Stojcevic in the village of Kucani.