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The Serbian Orthodox Church

The 20th century in Europe closed the same way it opened – war in the Balkans. The world witnessed snipers terrorize Sarajevo, soldiers torch churches and mosques, refugees frozen with fear and bulldozers uncover mass graves. “Balkan” is now synonymous with disintegration and bloodshed.

The Balkan Peninsula, a complex web of mountains and valleys, plains and streams, lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. More than a quarter of those who inhabit the peninsula – Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Serbs and Slovenians – descend from central European Slav tribes who migrated south in the seventh century A.D. These tribes have evolved into distinct nationalities, their distinctiveness buttressed by the natural barriers of the peninsula, proximity to more powerful – and competing – neighbors and a variety of religious expressions. Not unlike the narratives of other Balkan states, Serbia’s saga is one of chronic crisis and conflict. The Serbian Orthodox Church, which has played a leading role in the development of a distinct Serbian identity, has served as a cultural repository and a bastion of faith when the Serbian nation had appeared imperiled.

Obscure origins. Byzantine sources cite the existence of Byzantine Christian missionaries among Serbian villages of the Balkan interior as early as the seventh century. Not to be outdone, the papacy dispatched Latin missionaries to the Adriatic coast, where they evangelized a number of Serbian settlements. These Serbian communities (or zupas), while autonomous, formed a confederacy led by a knez (prince), who played off the rival powers of Byzantium and the Bulgars to the east and the papacy to the west.

The Serbian confederacies of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries did not form a cohesive Serbian nation. Internal squabbling, vacillating loyalties to Byzantium or Rome, difficult terrain and constant war prevented such a development. But Byzantine Christianity, bolstered by the use of Slavonic to teach and celebrate the divine mysteries, slowly gathered the Serb people into a cohesive unit, assuming dominance over the Latin bishoprics in Bar and Dubrovnik by the early 12th century. Ironically, Byzantine Christianity did not take hold among these Southern Slavs until after the collapse of the mission to the Slavs of Moravia by the brothers Cyril and Methodius.

Banished from Moravia in 886, two of the brothers’ disciples, Clement and Naum, settled in the town of Ohrid (now in the Republic of Macedonia). There they furthered their teachers’ evangelization of the Slavs. Clement, installed as bishop, is said to have trained thousands of Slavonic-speaking priests and reformed the Glagolitic alphabet devised by St. Cyril, renaming it Cyrillic, the precursor of the modern alphabet of the Belarussians, Bulgarians, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Russians, Serbs and Ukrainians. Naum founded the Ohrid Literary School, which translated biblical and theological texts into Slavonic. Their deeds played a crucial role in aligning the Bulgarians and Serbs (both of whom now claim Ohrid and Sts. Clement and Naum as their patrimony) with the world of Byzantium. (The churches of Byzantium and Rome split in 1054 because of growing linguistic, doctrinal and political differences.)

A family affair. For several centuries one zupa, the central state of Raska, dominated the Serbian confederacy. Eventually Grand Zupan Stephen Nemanja of Raska (about 1113-1199) forged a nation that at its height included modern Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, much of Macedonia and parts of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Greece.Stephen’s ambitions collided with the political and economic objectives of Byzantium. Despite this conflict Stephen patterned his court and state administration after Byzantium, combining traditional Serbian traditions of governance, such as the sobor (or council of elders), with Byzantine models.

Stephen, a devout Orthodox Christian, founded many churches and monasteries. His most famous achievement, the monastery of Studenica, blends sculptural forms of the Latin West with architecture and frescoes of the Byzantine East.

Three years before he died, Stephen abdicated his throne in favor of his second son and took monastic vows in Studenica. As the monk Simeon, he then joined the youngest of his three sons, Rastco, on Mount Athos, the principal monastic center in the Byzantine world. Simeon and Rastco, who had taken the monastic name Sava, founded the Hilandar Monastery on the ruins of an earlier monastery. Granted autonomy by the Byzantine emperor in 1198, Hilandar developed close ties to the Byzantine court in Constantinople and became an important center of learning and spirituality in the Orthodox world as well as an important symbol of Serbia long after Serbia ceased to exist politically.

After several years at Hilandar, Sava returned to Serbia, taking with him the remains of his father as a precaution – in 1204 Byzantium collapsed when Constantinople was sacked by marauding Latin Crusaders, who then formed a Latin kingdom. Sava reburied his father at Studenica, which drew pilgrims for centuries.

Though archimandrite (abbot) of the Studenica community, Sava traveled throughout the Serbian realm, founded parishes and monasteries, preached the Gospel, administered the sacraments, ordained priests and taught catechism. He also reconciled his warring older brothers and regularized parish life – necessities as Serbia found itself in the crossfire between the Catholic and Orthodox states that had succeeded Byzantium.

Sava petitioned the ecumenical patriarch (in exile in the Greek city of Nicea) for the autonomy of the Serbian Church, which was granted in 1217. Ordained archbishop, Sava erected eight eparchies, ordaining native Serbs to lead them. At a church council in 1221, Sava crowned his brother Stephen “King of the Serbs” and instructed those who had gathered for the event, nobility, clergy and laity, to hold fast to the Orthodox faith as taught by the church fathers.

Later in his life, Sava recognized the tenuous position of the Serbs and prophetically summarized their fate in a letter to a friend in Constantinople. “At first we were confused,” he wrote. “The East thought we were West, while the West considered us to be East. Some of us misunderstood our place in the clash of currents. Some cried that we belonged to neither side while others [cried] that we belonged exclusively to one side or the other.

“But I tell you, Ireneus,” he continued, “we are doomed by fate to be the East in the West and the West in the East, to acknowledge only heavenly Jerusalem beyond us, and here on earth, no one.”

Sava, “the Enlightener of the Serbs,” died in Bulgaria in 1236 after a pilgrimage to the churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople. His body was returned to Serbia and buried in the Mileseva monastery built by his nephew King Vladislav. Quickly canonized, St. Sava served as a rallying point for the Serbian people, long after the demise of the Serbian state and church. In 1594, Serbian rebels, bearing icons and banners of St. Sava, took up arms against the Ottoman Turkish occupiers, who retaliated by publicly burning his relics in Belgrade. Today, the largest Orthodox church in the world, dedicated to Sava, stands on the spot.

A Serbian zenith. For a century and a half, church and state in Serbia prospered. From its ports on the Adriatic, Serbia developed commercial alliances with the city-states of Italy. And trade was renewed in 1261 with a reconstituted, but much reduced, Byzantium, as well as Serbia’s Croatian and Hungarian neighbors to the north. As the borders of the state expanded so too did the reach of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Following the lead of Stephen Nemanja, Serbian kings sponsored the construction of fortified monasteries and commissioned elaborate frescos in their churches. These paintings, together with a profusion of icons and other liturgical objects, reveal the sophistication and maturity of the Serbian civilization. Though based on strict iconographic canons developed in Byzantium, these images combine trends then contemporary in Italian art with Byzantine lyricism and Serbian naturalism. The monastery churches of Decani (built by a Croatian Franciscan friar, Vita of Kotor), Gracanica and Pec, all in Kosovo, remain excellent examples of the flowering of Serbian culture.

In 1346, the ambitious king of the Serbs, Stephen Dusan (1331-55), envisioning a Serbian-Byzantine empire with himself at its head, created the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate of Pec at a council in his capital of Skopje (now the capital of the Republic of Macedonia). A week later, the patriarch crowned Stephen emperor.

Serbia was soon eclipsed, however, by the rise of a more powerful nation, the Ottoman Turk, whose westward sweep from Asia Minor coincided with the final decline of Byzantium and the climax of the Serbian empire.

The Ottoman occupation. Stephen Dusan died prematurely in 1355, leaving a weak heir who failed to consolidate the far-flung territories of his realm. A weakened Serbia met the Ottomans, a Muslim Turkish tribe, in battle on the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo in 1389. Though overwhelmed by the presence of a larger army, the Serbs, led by their pious Prince Lazar, fought valiantly. Eventually they succumbed to the forces of the Turks. Lazar, who died in battle, was canonized by public acclamation and became the subject of hymns, poems and ballads, which lionized the prince as a model of Serbian self-sacrifice. The memory of Kosovo continues to command a dominant hold on the Serbian national conscience.

A reduced Serbian state and patriarchate lingered after the Ottomans’ sacked Constantinople in 1453. But by 1459 these too fell, initiating four centuries of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia. These years, marked by periods of peace and persecution, lethargy and rebellion, also witnessed the great northern migration of the Serbs. Beginning in 1713, they retreated to the southern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, the Serbian Orthodox hierarchy, guaranteed sanctuary by the Austrian emperor, established monasteries and churches and enshrined relics of the Serbian past (many rescued from areas such as Kosovo), which the Ottomans had previously targeted as icons of Serbian nationalism.

The long and painful decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century coincided with the birth of Balkan nationalism, which began in Greece and spread to Bulgaria, Moldova, Serbia and Wallachia. (Montenegro, a Serbian mountain stronghold led by a bishop-prince of the Orthodox Church, had for centuries managed to retain a degree of autonomy.)

The Orthodox Church in each of these regions played a considerable role in the growth of independence movements, which in Serbia was achieved with the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1878.

The powder keg of Europe. Though Orthodoxy is the predominant faith of the Bulgarians, Greeks, Macedonian Slavs, Romanians and Serbs, it failed to prevent their governments from warring with one another in the first decades of the 20th century. Eager to reclaim what they perceived as their patrimony after centuries of Ottoman Turkish occupation, they created rival alliances with more powerful nations, each with its own economic and political agenda. These alliances unsettled the peoples of the nascent kingdoms during World War I, but more acutely affected them during World War II.

The emergence in 1918 of Yugoslavia, a united Southern Slav kingdom of Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Slovenes and Serbs – who culturally and politically dominated the state – facilitated the reunification of the kingdom’s assorted Orthodox eparchies into a cohesive unit, which the Ottomans had dispersed with their suppression of the Patriarchate of Pec in 1766.

The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion, granted the Serbian Orthodox Church its independence in 1920, raising it to the rank of patriarchate with its seat in the capital of Belgrade.

In 1941, the Nazis dismembered Yugoslavia, creating a puppet Croatian fascist state, German and Italian occupation zones and dividing the rest of the country among its Albanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian allies. Serbia – the target of the Nazis’ wrath – again ceased to exist.

Today, the Serbian Orthodox Church commemorates the lives, and deaths, of more than 800,000 people, martyrs who died for their identity as Serbs and their loyalty to the Orthodox faith. Many of these “New Martyrs,” which include bishops, priests, monks, nuns and lay people, were murdered in concentration camps operated by the Ustase, a Croatian paramilitary group.

The postwar regime of Josip Broz Tito minimized the ethnic rivalries among Yugoslavia’s peoples, targeting Croats and Serbs by supporting the aspirations of the Albanian, Bosniak (Slavic Muslims) and Macedonian minorities. While not overtly persecuted, the Serbian Orthodox Church, reeling from its Golgotha during World War II, saw its ministries curtailed and many of its properties confiscated.

A new beginning. Throughout the horror that unfolded after the 1992 breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle I appealed for reason. Ignoring his pleas, Serbian extremists butchered Albanians, Bosniaks and Croatians in the effort to cleanse “Greater Serbia” of all minorities – in the case of Kosovo, the Albanian Muslim majority. Though they deplored the violence, elements of the Serbian Orthodox leadership supported the restoration of a Greater Serbia.

Vilified by the international community, Serbs sought sanctuary in their Orthodox Church, which attributed the demise of Serbian civility and ethics to its reduced role in modern Serbian society.

As the church’s bishops distanced themselves from the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic, it called for an expanded role in society and the reintroduction of religious education in state schools. In January 1997, the octogenarian patriarch led more than 300,000 pro-democracy demonstrators through the streets of the capital to protest Milosevic’s role in squelching the democratic process.

Still healing from the horrors of the 20th century, the Serbian Orthodox Church is today shepherding a significant religious revival among its flock.

Michael La Civita is executive editor of ONE magazine.

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