Orthodox Church elects moderniser
The Serbian Orthodox Church has elected a new leader, who is seen as open to modernisation at a time the country is seeking to join the European Union.
Gavrilovic Irinej, 80, was picked as the new patriarch in a lottery-like draw among three candidates who were initially chosen in a secret ballot by 45 Holy Synod bishops.
Irinej — the 45th Serbian patriarch — is considered a compromise candidate after a power struggle within the influential church between hard-liners and liberals over who would succeed Patriarch Pavle, who died last November after a long illness.
The 7-million-member church, whose influence rose during the Balkan wars in the 1990s and the surge of nationalism in Serbia, now has a major role in the country's policies.
Irinej's election signals that the church will stay neutral in the Serbian government's attempts to join the European Union and other Western institutions. The hard-line clergy say Serbia should instead opt for stronger ties with its traditional ethnic and religious ally Russia.
Irinej said in a recent interview that he would not oppose a visit by the Roman Catholic Pope to Serbia — one of the rare European countries the pontiff has never visited. The hard-liners have opposed the visit because of a historic schism between the two churches.
Religion analyst Mirko Djordjevic described Irinej as "a man of dialogue," and said his election was "good news for the church and the public."
"He is one of those people in whose biography no one can find a single extremist statement," Djordjevic said.
Pavle, highly popular among seven million Serbian Orthodox Church followers because of his modesty and humility, died Nov. 15 at the age of 95 after a long illness. He led the traditionally conservative church through its post-Communist revival.
The church said that among the three bishops shortlisted in the lottery-like draw were Amfilohije — an anti-Western hard-liner known for his ultranationalism who led the church for most of Pavle's two-year hospitalization — and another radical, Irinej Bulovic.
Bishop Irinej Bulovic said after the election "we should all be thankful that we chose the new patriarch so quickly, and in such a harmonious and a miraculous way."