By CHRIS HEDGES
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The Rev. Stevo Vlacic, his deep baritone voice reciting a liturgy that has changed little in the last millennium, stood in his gold embroidered vestments Sunday and began a two-hour Mass for his standing congregation.
Candles flickered in long black metal troughs filled with sand. Oil lamps, with dim flames, hung from the ceiling. The sweet smell of incense wafted up toward the vaulted ceiling. Women, their heads covered with scarves, and elderly men lined up to kiss a framed picture of Jesus on the side of the church and a large, graphic painting of the dead Christ on the cross. The soft cadence of the priest's voice filled the building.
The service was as old as Serbian society itself. But in the last few weeks, priests like Vlacic have emerged from their parishes to take a leading role in the anti-government protest movement sweeping the country. The marriage of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the demonstrators has thrust the institution to the forefront of the political arena as it did a decade ago when the church was involved in the birth of the Serbian nationalist movement.
The church has emerged as a major force in the protests over the annulment by the Socialist government of opposition victories in municipal elections. The church involvement has deeply alarmed those who would like to see the country move toward democracy. They see the church as the main repository of Serbian nationalism and as deeply hostile to secular, Western political systems and ideas. Critics fear that the church will prove a powerful force in blunting reforms that would usher in a democratic, open society.
"The church is on the side of truth," said the 50-year-old black-robed priest as he sat after Mass in the parish house next to the church. "And the truth is that the Communists stole the votes. America, unfortunately for us, supports these Communists who run our government because it needs them."
The Serbian Orthodox Church, during five centuries of Ottoman occupation and during the last 50 years of Communist government, was the guardian of Serbian national identity. It was the blunt ideological instrument that President Slobodan Milosevic wielded in his drive to wrest power from the Communist bosses 10 years ago. And many priests, including Vlacic, enthusiastically backed the Bosnian Serb army in the war against the Muslim-led government in Bosnia, often traveling to bless the troops and meet with the Bosnian Serb leadership.
"The Orthodox church does not know the meaning of reform," said Miladin Zivotic, a former philosophy professor at Belgrade University. "Its theology precludes individual relations with God. It calls on its followers to be collective, unified supplicants."
Zivotic contends that the Orthodox theology negates modern concepts of free speech and tolerance. "The church's ideology is common to that of all authoritarian ideologies," he said. "It was because of the Orthodox church that this society was easily convinced that it had to become obedient followers of the Communist Party."
The imprint of the church is increasingly felt in the street protests, where marchers carry crosses, candles and posters with saints and icons. Patriarch Pavle, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, rebuffed pleas by university students for support when the protests began in late November. But in the last month he has addressed the protesters on at least three occasions, led a procession through the streets of the capital on the holiday honoring St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and blessed demonstrators on the Orthodox Christmas.
But by bringing the church into the protest movement, the opposition seems to have tied its fortunes to an institution that calls for a unified Serbian state that would include Serb-held Bosnia, which would violate the peace agreement. The opposition has also made it more difficult to reach out to the one third of the country that is not Serb.
The church, which was silent when Bosnian Serb forces carried out the brutal siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, adamantly defends the war in Bosnia. Church leaders repeatedly condemn what they term the "genocide" by Muslims and Croats against the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. Many in the hierarchy support the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was indicted by an international court for war crimes.
The theological precepts of the church, firmly rooted in the patriarchal Byzantine world of several centuries ago, may only add to the confused political debate as the country struggles to define its future.
"The Roman Catholic church announced in the Second Vatican Council that it was the duty of believers to support democracy and human rights," said Mirko Djordjevic, a retired literature professor who just finished a book about the Serbian Orthodox Church. "But the church in the east has never addressed these issues and found itself unprepared with the fall of communism.
"The Orthodox church has yet to formulate answers to the questions posed by this century," he said. "It lacks a social doctrine. It is unable to deal with the next millennium."
Thanks to Bob Djurdjevic (TRUTH IN MEDIA Phoenix, Arizona, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) for sending this article.