Serbia’s President Will Struggle to Get Patriarch He Can Control

Serbia’s power-hungry leader will be following the upcoming election of the next Patriarch closely – but the complex electoral system means there’s no guarantee he will get the candidate of his choice.

In a few days’ time, on February 18, the Assembly of Bishops, the supreme body of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is set to pick the 46th Serbian Patriarch.

Beyond the implications of the election on worldly politics, the choice of a new occupant of the throne of Pec will determine the social role of the Church for the years to come – whether it moves towards a long-awaited renewal or continues struggling to catch up with modernity.

The bishops will first vote from among themselves for three preferred candidates. In the second round, three envelopes, each containing a piece of paper with the name of one of the top contenders, are placed in the Gospels. The final choice is made by random selection, or by the Holy Spirit, as believers maintain, when, amid clouds of incense, one of the names is pulled out of the Scriptures.

The unusual voting procedure gives rise to conspiratorial claims that the secular authorities will try to rig the vote. Basing itself on an urban legend, whereby in 1958 the infamous head of the Communist regime’s secret police, Aleksandar Rankovic, handpicked Patriarch German by having his name written on all three pieces of paper, conspiracy theorists believe the state will try to manipulate this election, too.

In fact, German was not elected under the present-day lottery system. The Church introduced the “apostolic vote” only in 1990, precisely to stop the state from meddling in the process.

In 2010, during the election of the late Patriarch Irinej, three names made it to the Gospels – his own name, Irinej of Backa’s and that of the recently deceased Amfilohije, Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral. The Holy Spirit elected the oldest and least divisive of the candidates.

Notwithstanding his ability to exert pressure on the bishops, President Aleksandar Vucic will not decide who will be Serbia’s next Patriarch. Because of the system of random selection, the best he can hope for is that two of “his” candidates make it to the last round, increasing the chances of one of them being elected.

Several candidates are likely to make it to the Gospels. One is the that of powerful Bishop Irinej (Bulovic), nicknamed “protector of the unworthy” because of his past shielding of several senior clerics involved in corruption and sexual abuse scandals.

Because of his role as gatekeeper of the secrets of the Church, he controls an impressive voting machine in the Assembly of Bishops. Irinej is very close to the Russian Orthodox Church and thus presents an obstacle to the ecumenical drive of the Serbian Church. Irinej is not among those bishops who are critical of the Serbian regime, yet, because of his power, his election would be risky for President Vucic, who would have a hard time controlling him.

Two bishops competing for the graces of the Serbian regime, and likely to get to the second ballot, are Porfirije, Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana and Jovan, Bishop of Sumadija, one of the largest dioceses in the Serbian Church.

Porfirije is close both to the Vucic regime and to Bishop Irinej, but is younger and appears more modern. However, he spearheaded the Church’s firing of professors at the Faculty of Theology in Belgrade who spoke out against abuse and corruption in the institution, directly violating the autonomy of universities, which is protected by the Serbian constitution.

Jovan comes close to a caricature of a certain type of post-2000 Serbian Orthodox senior cleric, living in gilded palaces, driving around muddy villages in motorcades of black SUVs and closer to the business elite that emerged from the murky economic transition than the rest of the impoverished population. The bishop’s dismissal of a parish priest in 2017, allegedly because he had refused to charge the poor for his services, provoked months of protests by thousands of parishioners.

Irinej, Porfirije and to an extent Jovan, count on the same pool of votes, so it is unlikely that all three will make it to the top three.

Candidates whose prospects of getting elected are feared by President Vucic include Bishop Joanikije (Micovic), a close collaborator of late Metropolitan Amfilohije and current administrator of the Church in Montenegro, and Grigorije, Bishop of Düsseldorf and all Germany.

In 2020, the Montenegrin police arrested Joanikije and several priests for leading protests against a controversial law on religion proposed by the former Montenegrin government. Joanikije was a disciple and a close collaborator of Amfilohije’s and would likely continue his policies.

Bishop Grigorije (Duric), is the candidate preferred by the progressive part of Serbian society. Because of his liberal views, he has often been on collision course with the old ways of the Church. During the pandemic, unlike most senior clerics, he called for strict respect of social distancing measures. His words, “I am for churches full of healthy people, and not empty churches and derelict hospitals, full of people fighting for their lives” resonated among people.

His Christmas announcement, which many interpreted as willingness to directly enter the field of politics, prompted a menacing smear campaign against him in pro-government tabloids.

Other bishops sometimes mentioned as potential candidates are Bishop Jefrem (Milutinovic) of Banja Luka, Bishop Fotije (Sladojevic) of Zvornik and Tuzla, Bishop Ignatije Midic of Pozarevac and Branicevo, and Jovan (Culibrk) of Pakrac and Slavonia. Jefrem is the oldest of the candidates, like Bishop Irinej, a Russian student in the 1970s and member of the once powerful “Bosnian lobby” of bishops – much weakened in recent years. Bishop Fotije is also from Bosnia and very close to Irinej and his lobby group in the Church. Bishop Ignatije, is a distinguished theologian and a wine connoisseur.

Bishop Jovan, like Grigorije or Porfirije, belongs to a younger generation of internet savvy bishops. In the 1980s, he was an active rock critic. He did his postgraduate studies at the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel and is in the reserve force of the most elite paratrooper unit of the Serbian army.

Whoever becomes the next Patriarch will not change the Serbian Church’s position on Kosovo. No bishop can or will openly concede its right to independence.

Until now, the Serbian Church has been closer to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople than the Patriarchate of Moscow. Yet it did not recognise the independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not so much because of Russia but from fear that the Ukrainian precedent could apply to the canonically unrecognised Montenegrin Orthodox Churches.

On ecclesiastical matters, most notably the East-West divide, the Serbian Church is internally divided. If Irinej of Backa, or one of his candidates, becomes Patriarch, the Serbian Church is likely to fall under the influence of Moscow.

The Church remains the only powerful institution in Serbia not entirely captured by the regime. Recent events in Montenegro, where the Serbian Church played a significant role in the protests and the election that ended the 30-year-long rule of Milo Djukanovic, are a worrying precedent for President Vucic.

From a desire to suppress any dissent, the Serbian regime’s desire to influence the election of the new Patriarch knows no limits. However, paradoxically, because of the Church’s determination to safeguard its autonomy, the more Vucic tries to affect the vote, the less likely it is that he will get a Patriarch he can control.

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