Of all the Orthodox churches, the Serbian church was hit the hardest by the Covid pandemic, which resulted in the death of its Patriarch Irinej as well as that of the highest bishop in neighboring Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije. While the Serbian and Balkan media will be laser-focused on the profile of the new Primate and what his election, on February 18, will mean for church-state symphonic ambitions, it is evident that the new Serbian Patriarch will inherit accumulated problems regarding its disputed canonical jurisdictions in North Macedonia and, to lesser extent, in Montenegro.
The election of the new Serbian Patriarch is being monitored closely in Skopje and Podgorica. The authorities in both capitals have invested considerable resources and employed a number of tactics (with variations in results) to advance their pro-autocephaly claims in recent years. So what are the stakes for the Serbian new Patriarch?
The more pressing of the two questions will be the relations with the unrecognised Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC), which seceded from the Serbian church in 1967 and has been locked in dispute ever since. The issue of MOC autocephaly seems to have inched closer towards a possible settlement due to the readiness of Ecumenical Patriarch (EP) Bartholomew, back in 2018, to consider North Macedonia’s autocephaly appeal. This is already perceived as a small victory for the MOC and the political elite in Skopje given the long reluctance of the EP to engage in substantial discussions with North Macedonia’s state and church representatives on the matter, urging them to talk with the Serbian church instead. Just before the pandemic hit in January 2020, the Ecumenical Patriarch offered his mediation role to the parties and invited them to Phanar, which invitation the Serbian church allegedly has declined.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, originally approached the Ecumenical Patriarch roughly at the same time as Ukraine’s Poroshenko (April/May 2018) asking for autocephaly. Considerable effort to bring the strife with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) to an end and mend relations culminated in 2002 with the Niš agreement, which was supposed to bring the MOC into regularity by giving it the status of an autonomous church within the Serbian Orthodox Church. Due to heavy political pressure, the church in Skopje ultimately backed off from this proposed solution and remained locked in dispute with the SOC. The Serbian church insisted on establishing a canonical structure in North Macedonia, and the autonomous Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric (OOA) emerged out of it, headed by Archbishop Jovan (Vraniškovski). Even though relatively small, the OOA remains the only canonical structure in the country. The relevant authorities in North Macedonia consider the OOA to be an illegal entity and refuse to allow its registration because of its ties with the Serbian church, despite a 2017 European Court of Human Rights judgment in its favor.
With the change of government in 2017 and upon the Social Democrats forming a parliamentary majority, the authorities in Skopje took a much more proactive stance on the church autocephaly issue as a result of Zoran Zaev’s version of “zero problems with the neighbors,” in which the church question was perceived to be the last open bilateral question with North Macedonia’s closest neighbors. This was especially evident after the (short-lived) rapprochement with Bulgaria in 2017 and the much-improved relations with the SYRIZA led government in Greece, mainly due to the settlement of the name dispute with the signing of the Prespa treaty in June 2018. The reaching out to the EP was also a consequence of the failed plan in 2017 to circumvent the Serbian church by asking the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) to become the MOC’s Mother church and unilaterally recognize its autocephaly. To date, the BOC has not made its position clear about the MOC offer, although all the signs and external pressure against such idea point towards a negative outcome.
Following Petro Poroshenko’s steps, Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović pressed hard on the idea for an autocephalous Montenegrin church, which he put in motion by adopting a controversial Law on religious freedoms in December 2019. The SOC saw this as a direct attack on its operations in Montenegro, as it believed that certain aspects of the law dealt specifically with its church property as well as the promotion of a separate Montenegrin church. According to the legal text adopted in 2019, all religious property built pre-1918 (the year Montenegro united with Serbia) should become the property of the state if the religious organization occupying the same is not able to provide proof of ownership. This angered the Serbian church, which brought massive protests, lasting for several months, ultimately resulting in the toppling of the ruling party in the August 2020 parliament elections. The significance of these actions taken by the church and its consequences are enormous considering that the Democratic Party of Socialists had been in power uninterruptedly in Montenegro for the last three decades. One of the most urgent tasks for the new pro-Serbian government was to get rid of the controversial law, and in December 2020, the problematic articles dealing with state property were dropped.
With the installation of the new pro-Serbian government, the hopes for an independent Montenegrin church are shelved for the time being, as the main political instigator, President Đukanović, doesn’t have much (international) leverage for such an endeavor. Unlike the response to his counterparts in Skopje, the response to Đukanović from the EP was outright rejection of the idea of a Montenegrin autocephalous church. Moscow also stood firmly in support of the Serbian church on the matter. In a sign of solidarity with the SOC, high level clergy from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, including the head of the church Metropolitan Onuphry, participated in the anti-government protests in Montenegro in 2019.
The fire from the increased demands for autocephaly for the Montenegrin church, thanks to the new pro-Serbian government, seems to be damped down. Yet, however small, there is still a push at a grassroots level, coming from the unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which will keep those independence ideals alive. The new Serbian church leadership will also get some “grace period” to respond to EP’s mediation offer. One should therefore not expect dramatic changes in the SOC’s resolute efforts to maintain its canonical jurisdiction in North Macedonia, as it has been a well anchored policy for many years. Any leeway granted by the SOC side would be centered around the old recipe: an autonomous church status within the Serbian church. If the new Serbian Primate decides to ignore the increased attention of the EP and the appeals of the MOC increase, it might face a bumpy road ahead.
Andreja Bogdanovski is a PhD candidate at the University of Buckingham, UK, where he studies church autocephaly movements across Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.