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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serb Priests Doubt Milosevic Regime

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A handful of black-robed, full-bearded Serb Orthodox priests bobbed on the edges of a noisy crowd that assembled last week in the Serb town of Cacak to demand that President Slobodan Milosevic resign.

To see and hear one of them, the Rev. Stojan Stokic, a village priest who had driven more than 240 kilometers for the rally, was to believe that something fundamental is changing in the soul of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which grabbed international attention last month by coming out ahead of Serb opposition parties and calling on Milosevic to step down.

But Stokic, who said he would preach his anti-Milosevic politics in his parish Sunday morning, is still an exception.

The Orthodox Church is both bound by and responsible for the notion that wherever Serbs live and bury their dead should be part of Serbia.

This is the same church that 10 years ago welcomed Milosevic's violent nationalist land grab in the collapsing Yugoslavia and whose most senior bishops traveled in the war zones of Croatia and Bosnia, blessing Serb forces shelling towns like Bosnia's Sarajevo.

Even though its head, Patriarch Pavle, said last week in Kosovo that the Serb leader's policies are criminal, the church continues to send mixed signals about what its priests should do in toppling a president who is indicted as a war criminal.

Stokic said the war in Kosovo, where Serbs committed atrocities against Albanians before losing control of territory his church regards as sacred to Serbs, had changed everything.

"I am so ashamed and I am feeling guilty," he said. "Milosevic never mentions that Albanians were killed. He is only president of the police.

"It isn't the job of the Orthodox Church to speak about politics. But now in this terrible time, we must speak out against this man."

But Bishop Atanasije, vicar of the patriarchy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and a cleric who often speaks for Pavle, said in an interview: "The church is not a political body. If the church has called for Slobodan Milosevic to resign, it is not because the church is involved in politics, it is out of her own pastoral care for the people of this country."

Taking pains to deny news stories that parish priests around Serbia have been instructed to use Sunday's services as the beginning of a campaign to teach Serbs about atrocities committed in their name in Kosovo, the bishop said, "Those reports have nothing to do with reality."

In the decade during which Milosevic has been fomenting ethnic war in the countries and regions that once were part of a united Yugoslavia, the Serbian Orthodox Church has frequently criticized him and called for his resignation.

In 1992, shortly after the start of the war with Croatia, Pavle accused Milosevic of making Serbs "victims of communist tyranny" and called for the creation of a government of national salvation.

The patriarch in 1997 led a procession of more than 100,000 people into central Belgrade and lent his support to months of demonstrations during which opposition parties demanded that the president step down.

But until the patriarch began speaking recently of the "evil" he has seen in Kosovo, the focus of church criticism has not been that Milosevic's government committed atrocities in trying to create a new Serb empire, but that it has been unsuccessful in building that larger state.

"We blame Milosevic not for trying to defend the nation, but for failing," said Atanasije.