The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Orthodox Church of Serbia

The origin of Christianity in Serbia is obscure. But there is a tradition that Christianity on the Dalmatian coast can be traced back directly to the Apostle Paul. Latin missionaries were certainly active along the Dalmatian coast in the 7th century. In the 9th century Byzantine missionaries were at work in Serbia, having been sent by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian. Eventually the Serbian people became entirely Christian.

Due in part to its geographical location, the Serbian church vacillated between Rome and Constantinople for a time, but finally gravitated towards the Byzantines. In 1219, St. Sava was consecrated the first Archbishop of a self-governing Serbian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople, then residing at Nicaea during the Latin occupation of his city.

The Serbian kingdom reached its apogee during the reign of Stevan Dushan, who extended Serbian rule into Albania, Thessaly, Epirus, and Macedonia. Dushan was crowned Emperor of the Serbians and established a Serbian Patriarchate at Pec in 1346. This state of affairs was recognized by Constantinople in 1375.

The Serbs were defeated by the Turks in 1389, and subsequently they were gradually integrated into the Ottoman Empire. The Turks suppressed the Serbian Patriarchate in 1459, only to restore it in 1557. But it was suppressed again in 1766, when all the bishops in Serbia proper were replaced by Phanariot Greeks subject to the Patriarchate in Constantinople.

The emergence of an autonomous Serbian state in 1830 was coupled with the establishment of an autonomous Orthodox metropolia based at Belgrade and the replacement of Greek bishops by Serbs. In 1878 Serbia gained international recognition as an independent nation, and in 1879 the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the Serbian church as autocephalous. In 1918 the multinational state of Yugoslavia was formed, making possible the amalgamation of various Orthodox jurisdictions now within Yugoslavia (the formerly autonomous Serbian metropolias of Belgrade, Karlovci, Bosnia, Montenegro, and the diocese of Dalmatia) into a single Serbian Orthodox Church. In 1920 Constantinople recognized this union and raised the Serbian Church to the rank of Patriarchate.

The Serbian church suffered heavily during World War II, especially in regions under the control of the fascist Croatian state. Altogether it lost some 25% of its churches and monasteries and about one-fifth of its clergy. Following the establishment of a communist Yugoslav government in 1945, the Serbian church had to work out a new relationship with the officially atheist state. Much church property was confiscated, religious education was banned in the schools, and there was disagreement about the predominant role of Serbia in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Tito’s break with the Soviet Union in 1948 and the development of better relations with the West led to greater tolerance of religion and an improved situation for the church. Nevertheless, subtle forms of persecution continued, with the government supporting a schism within the Serbian Orthodox Church [see the Macedonian Orthodox Church].

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, the Serbian Orthodox Church became more involved in social and political matters. It strenuously denounced the anti-religious practices of past communist regimes and began to distance itself from the nationalist government of Slobodan Milošević. But, while it frequently called for peace during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the church hierarchy also vigorously supported the efforts of Serbian minorities in that country and in Croatia to achieve national union with Serbia itself. In 1994 the Serbian Orthodox bishops met in Banja Luka, in the Serb-held section of Bosnia. At the meeting they asserted that, since many Serbs found themselves in new republics outside Serbia as a result of borders that had been artificially imposed by totalitarian regimes for administrative purposes, those borders could not be accepted as final. They rejected both the international sanctions placed on Yugoslavia and the sanctions that had been placed by the Yugoslav government on the Serbs in Bosnia. They pledged to remain with the Serbian people “on the cross upon which they are being crucified.”

In 1996 the Serbian bishops called for the moral renewal of the Serbian people, but said that this process was hindered by the educational system which was still Marxist in spirit. They also denounced “the reappearance of old totalitarian methods” in society and continued to claim that the actions of the international community in Bosnia and the Hague Tribunal revealed a bias against Serbia. In early January 1997 the Serbian Holy Synod condemned in the strongest terms the efforts of the Milošević government to suppress the results of the November 1996 local elections and called upon the authorities to respect democratic principles. Later in January Patriarch Pavle led more than 300,000 demonstrators in the streets of Belgrade in support of the pro-democracy movement.

In mid-1997 an assembly of all the Serbian bishops encouraged Serbian exiles from Croatia and Bosnia to return to their homes and demanded that the governments of those countries guarantee their safety. The bishops also called for a dialogue with the Serbian government on the restitution of church property seized after 1945, and for the teaching of catechism in public schools. On the question of ecumenism, the bishops stated that their church is always open to dialogue and does everything possible to promote reconciliation and unity among Christians. They also called for a pan-Orthodox consultation on the ecumenical movement and Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches. The assembly met again in November 1997 to consider the reorganization of the church’s educational system. The bishops also reiterated their call for the introduction of religious education in the public schools and the promotion of Christian ethical values among the people.

The situation in Kosovo and Metohija, the historical center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, has been of special concern to the Serbian Orthodox bishops. In May 2007 they firmly rejected international attempts to sever the region from Serbia, and declared that it must remain an integral, indivisible part of the Republic of Serbia. On February 17, 2008, in reaction to Kosovo’s declaration of independence earlier on the same day, the Holy Synod reiterated that “Kosovo and Metohija was and must remain an integral part of Serbia.”

Patriarch Pavle died in 2009 at the age of 95. He was succeeded in 2010 by Bishop Irinej of Niš, a post he had held since 1975. Soon thereafter, discussions began about the possibility of a papal visit to Niš in connection with celebrations marking the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. Patriarch Irinej indicated that he would not oppose such a visit, but it did not take place because the Serbian Orthodox Church insisted on a papal apology for crimes committed against Serbian Orthodox during World War II. In May 2019, Pope Francis publicly thanked Patriarch Irinej for assisting the work of the joint historical commission examining the possible canonization of Croatian Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, referring to Irinej as a “great patriarch.”

On November 1, 2019, Patriarch Irinej presided at the funeral of Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro, who had died from covid-19. The Patriarch tested positive for the virus on November 4, and passed away in a military hospital in Belgrade on November 20. The Serbian bishops gathered on February 19, 2021, to elect a new patriarch, following a new procedure that has been in place since 1990. First, a series of secret ballots determined the three strongest candidates. Each of the three names were then written on a slip of paper and sealed in a separate envelope. The three envelopes were then inserted into a Gospel book, one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. A monk is then called in to pull out one of the envelopes in the Gospel book. The name in that envelope is the new Patriarch. In this case, the name in the envelope was that of Metropolitan Porfirije (Perić) of Zagreb-Ljubljana, and so he became the new patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. During his tenure in Croatia and Slovenia, Porfirije had good relations with the local Catholic hierarchy. In 2016 he received an award from the Theological Academy of St. Ignatios in Stockholm “for his contribution to the reconciliation of the people in the Balkans and his dedicated work on promoting unity among Christians.”

The highest authority in the Serbian church is the Holy Assembly of Bishops, composed of all the church’s bishops. It meets once a year in May. The standing Holy Synod of Bishops, made up of the Patriarch and four bishops, governs the church on a day-to-day basis. The Serbian Orthodox Church now has 39 dioceses, over 3,500 parishes served by some 2,000 parish priests, and 220 monasteries. In addition, the church has five Seminaries (in Belgrade, Sremski Karlovci, Prizren, Srbinje [Serbinye] and Cetinje), two Theological Faculties (in Belgrade and Libertyville, Illinois, USA), and a Theological Institute in Belgrade that was founded in 1921. Fifteen religious publications are sponsored by the Patriarchate and other dioceses.

Most of the Serbian Orthodox communities abroad experienced a split in 1963 because of disagreements regarding their relationship with the Serbian Patriarchate under the communist Yugoslav government. Those who were opposed to maintaining links with Belgrade formed the Free Serbian Orthodox Church, later known as the New Gracanica Metropolitanate, and broke all canonical links with the Patriarchate. It was only in 1991 that there was a reconciliation between the two groups under Patriarch Pavle, although for a time both ecclesiastical structures continued to exist separately. They adopted a common constitution in 1998, paving the way for administrative unity. The Serbian Orthodox Assembly of Bishops approved this arrangement in May 2006. A similar split existed among the Serbian Orthodox in Australia and New Zealand, but the two groups united into a single Metropolitanate in 2011.

There are now three Serbian Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. Bishop Longin (Krčo) heads the Diocese of New Gracanica-Midwestern America (New Gracanica Monastery, 35240 West Grant Ave., Third Lake, Illinois 60046). The diocese of Eastern America, led by Bishop Irinej (Dobrijevic), has its headquarters at 65 Overlook Circle, New Rochelle, New York 10804. The diocese of Western America (1621 West Garvey Avenue, Alhambra, California 91803) is guided by Bishop Maxim (Vasiljević). Altogether there are about 125 Serbian Orthodox parishes and 12 monastic communities in the United States. The Diocese of Canada (7470 McNiven Road, Campbellville, Ontario L0P 1B0, Canada) is under the pastoral guidance of Bishop Mitrofan (Kodic). There are 33 parishes in the Canadian diocese.

The Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate of Australia and New Zealand is headed by Bishop Siluan (Mrakić), (3-a Nance Avenue, Cabramatta NSW 2166). Altogether there are 31 parishes and 12 missions in Australia, and two parishes and one mission in New Zealand. In the United Kingdom there are seven Serbian Orthodox parishes under the jurisdiction of Bishop Dositej of Great Britain and Scandinavia (Bägerstavägen 68, 120 47 Enskede Gård, Stockholm, Sweden).

Location: Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, USA, Canada, Western Europe, Australia
Head: Patriarch Porfirije (born 1961, elected 2021)
Title: Archbishop of Pec, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovci, Serbian Patriarch
Residence: Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Membership: 8,000,000

Last Modified: 01 February 2024

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