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January 20, 2010

Serbian Church Divided Over Next Patriarch

Serbian Church Divided Over Next Patriarch and Its Future

January 20, 2010

Belgrade, Serbia - Bishops in the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) are meeting Friday to vote for their new patriarch amid feuding and jostling among reformists and dogmatists. Though the church head, Patriarch Pavle, died in November after being incapacitated for two full years, the Holy Synod - the SPC's highest council - failed to agree on a profile for his successor.

The conservative SPC has been blocked by infighting of even more conservative bishops, who oppose openness to other churches and fight Western influences in Serbian society, while the more relaxed wing wants the church to be more open and modern.

Upon Pavle's request to be relieved of duties in November 2008, the Synod once debated a successor, but the bishops could not agree.

Now once more a fight is at hand, but not through a simple debate and election leading to a new patriarch and the triumph of one option over the other.

For one, the patriarch will have to be elected in a lottery draw, one of the three bishops who receive the most support in probably many rounds of voting, including the haggling of interest groups between each round.

That was also how the soft-spoken Pavle, an underdog, was elected patriarch in 1990, on the eve of wars in the former Yugoslavia.

In addition, there are not just two or three clearly-drawn groups in the SPC, but many amorphous unions over various issues, ranging from relations with the Catholic Church to the form of the liturgy.

"There are many more than two wings," one of the younger bishops, Fotije, said in a recent interview with the daily Blic.

"We have bishops 80 years old, educated before World War II and with huge experience. Then there are bishops under 40, also well- educated in the era of digital communication," he said.

With so many interests at stake, the decision of the throne caretaker, Bishop Amfilohije, to schedule the promotion of the new patriarch as early as Sunday was seen as a signal.

"If the patriarch cannot be elected in one day, he will not be elected in more than that," said SPC sources quoted by Blic in its Tuesday edition.

If the Synod remains blocked, unable to find three candidates capable of garnering more than 50 per cent of the vote in one of the rounds of voting, the bishops may chose to vote on a new statute and change the election mechanism.

So, though only days remain until the council meeting, it is still anyone's guess who the main contenders will be.

The bishops cannot even agree on which monk will have the honour of drawing the ballots, the daily Politika said Tuesday, presuming three candidates advance to that stage.

"In the end ... God shall decide who is to lead the Church," Fotije said.