Il controverso ruolo della chiesa ortodossa serba durante gli anni del conflitto nella ex Jugoslavia è ancora oggetto di dibatitto e di incertezze.
'The conclusion is that the church has followed in the footsteps of the entire Serbian society'
For the majority of people in Serbia, religion was considered a secondary scale activity for at least 50 years after World War II. This was partly due to the fact that any form of religious thought, or for that matter any activity dissenting from the prevalent communist ideology, was considered dangerous and was suppressed vigorously. Additionally, a specific Serbian view of faith, much more a matter of preservation of tradition than anything else, often meant little genuine religiosity not to mention bigotry. This lack of serious, whole-hearted interest helped the ruling regime, at the time, to repress religion much more easily than would have been possible in another country. Of course, a smaller circle of truly religious families, as well as church representatives, did suffer a kind of repression during the communist age. However, apart from minor grumbles and some attempts of small-scale segregation, they were usually left alone.
The Church and Serbian Nationalism
In the late eighties and early nineties, the revival of Serbian nationalism (along with its counterparts in all the former republics) meant a revival of interest in religious matters. The 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989 marked the beginning of the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time used renewed nationalist emotions to manipulate the masses for his purposes. In this effort, he used any means available, including the church. The Serbian academy of sciences with its declaration, and then active church leaders, with the patriarch German standing out, gave avid support to Milosevic's unreasonable program, wanting to snatch for their own institutions as much of the leader's popularity as possible. It was too late to repent after the tragedy started.
The years to come saw a new fashion - that of going to church regularly, and practicing all professed rituals with a bit too much zeal. This meant TV screens covered with church ceremonies and religious chants on a daily basis - an image until then unseen on Serbian national TV. The infection spread all over the country to the confusion of non-believers (who at the time all of a sudden became a minority of the population) and to the shock of genuine believers (who could not help but scorn the new-age children of the church, since they themselves had practiced those rituals for decades, but often in fear of being persecuted by the former regime). As with any new fashion, the mockery lasted for some time - with many new church goers claiming to be true Christians, though they were often seen eating pork during the time of the fast, or truly fasting but satiating their desire with alcohol or women, although the Church professed "genuine abstinence from all earthly pleasures" during the big fast. Not to mention the notorious cases of women approaching the altar (strongly forbidden in the Orthodox faith) or of almost everyone wanting to try their luck in one of the church choirs, irrespective of t heir musical talent.
And so it was the age of the early nineties - where the church was widely seen in some local circles, and in many foreign ones, as one of the strongholds of the Milosevic regime. The church itself never openly spoke in favour of the former leadership, not to mention in favour of the war atrocities which started to pile up. However, its tacit support was overwhelming, which could be seen in the war heroes of those days. Ordinary mercenaries to military commanders and some political leaders callied upon the Church and Orthodoxy in their holy wars. Milosevic himself never expressed any signs of religiosity, and he met church representatives only when necessary, granting them no exceptional etiquette, apart from a handshake and a frozen smile. But all the rest seemed to yearn for the Church to support them in their war goals. Their uniforms with crosses and small cards with images of Serbian saints helped the idea spread. It was at that time that the old sacred Serbian symbols were abused. The three fingers shown on the right hand, now seen as a notorious butchering symbol worldwide, is actually a religious symbol. It signifies three basic Orthodox values -Love, Faith and Hope, and it is with those three fingers that the Serbian Orthodox makes the sign of the cross. The Serbian custom of kissing in the cheek not two, but three times when parting stems from the same idea (and it never stops confusing most foreign visitors here). The cross with four 'C's' (Cyrillic for 'S') denotes the old proverb 'Only Unity Saves the Serb', which was also widely abused at the time. It would be important to say that inherently these symbols have about the same meaning as clinking glasses and saying 'Cheers', which according to some sources originates from an old pagan Slavic rite of chasing away evil spirits from one's food and drink. Yet, symbols in certain contexts gain more meaning, and some will probably never be openly used by Serbs abroad again. The role of the church in this deterioration is still unclear - its representatives will now undoubtedly deny any influence on decision making at the time, but at least tacit support is unquestioned.
The Changing Role of the Church after Dayton
After the Dayton peace accord the situation changed a lot. The new Serbian patriarch Pavle (Paul) had for some time been unhappy with Milosevic's position. In 1996-97 the church openly backed the opposition in its attempt to restore some dignity to the nation and find out the real results of the forged local elections. The rumor at the time had it that Milosevic was so angry that his only message to the patriarch on January 7 1997 (December 25 1996 in the old Julian calendar, still used by the Serbian Orthodox Church) read a simple "Merry Christmas". Be that as it may, church representatives seemed to have broken loose at the time. At least three prominent archbishops (one of them responsible of Raska-Prizren eparchy, i.e. the territory of Kosovo and the Muslim-populated Sandzak) openly sided with the opposition and supported it in many activities in the years to come. The Patriarch himself never isolated Milosevic completely, which was seen in his frequent visits to the first Serbian family during NATO's bombardment. However, the church justified this with its wish to have a reconciliatory role in Serbian political life. But the very need for public justification meant considerable distancing from the former dictator.
The growing role of the church in the last seven years has been not only in politics, where it has stood mostly by the opposition, but also in the overwhelming humanitarian aid that it has been providing not only for the believers , but to all people, especially refugees in need of food and shelter. Many priests excelled in their daily help to people who really needed it. Additionally, the church has done a lot in the previous years for preserving at least some Serbs in Kosovo. Culturally, throughout history, it has always been up to date. For instance, one of the first web sites in today's Yugoslavia was the official presentation of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Educational or presentation multimedia CDs have appeared often, too. Therefore the overall role of the church in recent years cannot be stated in black and white terms. Most probably, its initial thrill with Milosevic's national project gave way to bewilderment, then astonishment, then disgust. Outside politics, in real life, it has been helping as much as possible those who need help the most.
Today, the restoration of true values in all layers of social life applies to the church, as well. The once fashionable new-age habit of regular weekly church attendance has waned, so today only the truly religious go to church often. Interestingly, many younger people today, unburdened by communist heritage, feel a genuine need for religion and they will probably represent the core of Serbian Orthodox believers in the years to come. The majority, however, prefer traditional Orthodox values, often pagan in origin, to purely Christian ones. This means strong family traditions such as peculiar, often very complex and symbolic, rites for Christmas, Easter and numerous other occasions, the most prominent of which is 'the Slava'. A Serbian specialty, unseen in any other Orthodox tradition, it represents a yearly celebration of a patron family saint, which is taken to be the day of 'birth' of the family tree. True faith and tradition thus often merge, and it is hard to say in numbers how many people are truly devout.
Politically, the influence of the church is now put into a standard framework. Its representatives are consulted whenever a major national issue is at stake. The latest example is patriarch Pavle's decision to register as a Kosovo IDP and to call upon the Serbs to take part in the elections. Apart from such issues, the church remains neutral, especially in daily political wrangles. The lesson has obviously been learned. As for politicians themselves, they rarely call upon the church in any matter, but they are willing to meet church representatives every now and then, and to donate some funds when necessary. The recent case in which the grand church of Nis burned down under strange circumstances saw numerous political, social, cultural and business associations and individuals donating funds for its renewal. Nis eparchy is still in need of material help to rebuild the church.
A Place for Other Religions
There are other religions in Serbia, too. The traditional ones are looked upon with tolerance. Small catholic communities exist in all major cities (Nis included) and they are viewed with respect. There was even a TV series of other religious communities on local television recently, which was an attempt to revive religious tolerance after years of hatred. There are many Muslims, who are also respected, although in some areas with wariness, but the fear seems to be unfounded. In no part of the country, apart from Kosovo, have they shown any signs of aggression so far. There are also some Protestant communities (in Nis, the Adventist Church is especially popular) who are sometimes considered semi-sects, perhaps frowned upon, but generally left alone. Finally, a number of peculiar minor communities are widely seen as destructive sects, and they are often publicly denounced. The issue is very sensitive, since telling apart religious from destructive communities is difficult, if not impossible. The Nis public was shocked a couple of years ago when there were two cases of Jehovah's Witness children who died because their parents refused to let them get a blood transfusion. Frequent courses of 'transcendental meditation', or 'Silva methods' are also a cause for some concern.
Finally, some parts of the country have become notorious for open Satanism, which has alarmed the police, as well. Recently, there was a series of programmes on state television subverting the activity of many suspicious religious communities. At the local level, there was a reconciliation attempt by the NGO Open Club from Nis, to gather some local religious representatives from different communities to discuss on a talk show. Just one show is surely not enough. However, sects have been much more active in the north of the country (Belgrade and Vojvodina) while in Nis they are still rare.
The conclusion is that the church has followed in the footsteps of the entire Serbian society. It probably had its hands dirty (but didn't we all in one way or another), then it went through purification, and now it finally seems to be moving in the right direction - towards becoming a key institution to preserve the historical and cultural values of the nation.