Spotlight on the Eastern Churches: The Orthodox Church of Serbia

The 20th century in Europe closed the same way it opened — war in the Balkan Peninsula. 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 Balkans, 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 Slavic tribes who migrated south in the seventh century. These tribes have evolved into a number of nationalities, their distinctiveness buttressed by the natural barriers of the peninsula, proximity to more powerful 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 Orthodox Church of Serbia, 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.

Orthodoxy is the predominant faith of the Bulgarians, Greeks, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Romanians and Serbs. But the individual national Orthodox churches in each of these nations 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, these nations created rival alliances with more powerful nations, which often had conflicting economic and political agendas. These alliances unsettled the peoples of the peninsula, especially during the world wars.

The emergence in 1918 of Yugoslavia, a united Southern Slav kingdom of Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Slovenes and Serbs — though the Serbs culturally and politically dominated the state — facilitated the unification of assorted Orthodox eparchies into a cohesive unit, which the Ottomans had dispersed with their suppression of a Serbian Orthodox 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, dividing the nation among its Albanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian allies. Serbia — the target of the Nazis’ wrath — ceased to exist.

Today, the Orthodox Church of Serbia 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.

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