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Serbia's Judgment Day Nears As Church Criticizes President

The political cartoon in Belgrade's Nasa Borba newspaper tells the story: Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic is caricatured as a devil.

In close chase behind him are the archbishop and senior clergy of Serbia's Orthodox Church, who hold crosses aloft like a modern-day Inquisition.

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The cartoon illustrates the growing influence of the Serbs' national church, and its harsh denunciation of Mr. Milosevic's nullification of November local elections and violent attacks against pro-democracy demonstrators.

The church - which is national and administers to all ethnic Serbs - is the latest institution to add its voice in opposition to Milosevic, further encircling and isolating the Serb leader. Already there have been signs of division within the Army, the police, and his own party to compound mounting pressure for democracy from abroad. Even the mayor of Belgrade, who would have lost his seat if the November election results had been honored, reportedly resigned in protest at Milosevic's handling of the situation.

But the church's reentry into Serbia's political arena also highlights an internal crisis that has simmered in the aftermath of the Balkan wars and undermined the church's traditional moral role.

For many Serbs, the church has been corrupted - hand in hand with Milosevic and hard-line Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia - by playing a crucial driving role in the Serb nationalism that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

An emergency synod of bishops blamed the authorities last Thursday for "pitting Serbia against the whole world" and causing divisions among Serbs "to the point of bloodshed so that they can stay in power."

But today, the church is grappling with widespread skepticism. Serbs have watched the collapse of the once-popular dream of "Greater Serbia," which the church was seen to have sanctioned, so they are watchful of the church's current shift toward the political opposition.

The tough statement came only after six weeks of daily pro-democracy demonstrations that have brought tens of thousands onto snow-driven streets and left one dead in clashes with police.

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Vuk Draskovic, a leader of the opposition Zajedno (Together) parties, berated the church for its reluctance to condemn Milosevic: "How many more people have to die before you take a stand?" he asked.

Church-state tension

But the conflict between the Orthodox Church and state has a long, complex history that stretches back to the end of World War II, when the staunchly Communist regime discouraged religious observance.

Seeds of the current church-state split, Serb analysts say, were sown with the church's decision to reassert its authority when other East European regimes began to crumble in 1989.

To the distress of non-Serbs, Orthodox elders played a key role in exhuming the bones of Tsar Lazar, a Serb war hero who died fighting Turkish domination in 1389. The remains traveled to monasteries throughout Yugoslavia, marking the territory that Serbs would later claim as their own.

Skulls of Serb ancestors who were killed by neighboring fascist Croat secret police units during World War II were also exhumed and tales told of their passing, which instilled desires for revenge.

The church followed this nationalist trend closely, and during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and 1992 - despite horrific atrocities - was seen to back Serb hard-liners and their militias.

"The church has not meant anything politically for 130 years, and it has strayed into a spiritual dead-end street," says Milos Vasic, a journalist with Vreme magazine in Belgrade. "They sacrificed the Christian message and have been ruined by the temptation of worldly power in Bosnia."

Church officials admit to the spiritual crisis, but say that they have been misunderstood.

"Even among the faithful are those who at certain moments fell prey to the psychology of war," says Radovan Bigovic, a deacon and professor of theology.

"Sometimes Christian, human, and moral values do not go together with political interests," he says. "But the church did not represent strong nationalist views. Serbs had certain rights as other people, and it only defended those rights. From this many concluded that the church was for 'Greater Serbia,' but this was propaganda."

The church in Belgrade began to distance itself from Milosevic in 1989, when its ecclesiastical role was made subservient to his political moves.

Then, the church message about Serb history was "forgive but do not forget." But because of the intensifying nationalism at the time, only the second half of that message - do not forget - filtered through the political rhetoric.

"The church was used by the government, but it didn't go out and say 'Don't use us as a weapon for your nationalism,' " says Dusan Radulovic, a journalist with Radio Free Europe who is an expert on modern Orthodox history. "It's a fact: They did not do the right things at the right moment."

Backing Bosnian atrocities

In Bosnia, especially, the church played a heavy political role. Photographs of an Orthodox priest with a gun - and the 1-1/2 years it took for the church to condemn destruction of mosques - convinced many non-Serbs that the church and "ethnic cleansing" militias were riding the same nationalist wave.

Further signs of the church's hard-line stance came when Milosevic gave up the idea of a "Greater Serbia" by withdrawing support for Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia in 1995, and his signing of a less-than-satisfying peace deal for Bosnian Serbs at Dayton.

Though the church has officially denounced nationalism, in last week's letter it again blamed Milosevic for "betrayal" of Serbs outside Serbia's immediate borders.

"The church wants to be out of that, but it is still looking though those [nationalist] glasses," says Mr. Radulovic.

More than a year after the most recent Balkan war ended, the church is coming to grips with its recent history. Still, clergy say that their congregations are growing.

"There is a big moral crisis," says Deacon Bigovic. "It can be a good opportunity for change for a spiritual and moral renaissance. Or it can lead to an even greater fall."

Will there be change for the better? One nonbelieving Serb half-jokes with a tenet of Serb nationalism: "Of course," she says, because, "we are a heavenly people. We believe in miracles."

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