On February 18th, the Serbian Orthodox Church elected its new patriarch—59-year old Porfirije Perić. The new Archbishop of Peć, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovac and Patriarch of Serbia, is a theologian who served for a year as the bishop of the Serbian army, represented the Serbian religious communities in his country’s Broadcasting Agency Council, and spent the last six years as the Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana.
Even before he was elected, those familiar with the Orthodox Christian world pointed to the difficult work awaiting the new Serbian patriarch. As Andreja Bogdanovski wrote on this blog, the patriarch will have to face the demands for the autocephalous status of the Macedonian Orthodox and Montenegrin Orthodox churches. While these requests are not new—in the Macedonian case, they are more than half a century old—that long history does not make them any less pressing. To address them, Porfirije will have to navigate the institutional and theological disputes along with profound political and territorial issues that still shape the life of the region.
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?
When, in March 2020, Serbian Patriarch Irinej officially sanctioned Dr. Vukašin Milićević, a priest and assistant professor of the Faculty of Orthodox Theology (FOT) at the University of Belgrade, it became clear that the recent interference of higher clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) in public speech matters gradually evolved into monopolizing the freedom of expression of its clergy with regard to almost all relevant issues, including science. The Patriarch remarked that Prof. Milićević—by his unannounced appearance in the TV broadcast Utisak nedelje—expressed disobedience to him personally, that he neglected the Constitution of the SPC and compromised the decisions of the Holy Council of Bishops that are binding for all clerics and prelates. Dr. Milićević belongs to a group of younger Orthodox theologians who openly tackle the problems within SPC and at the FOT. He is a co-signer of the 2017 public statement that came as a reaction to the petition of Serbian creationists, claiming that there were no plausible alternative scientific theories that could replace the theory of evolution. This includes the “biblical creation theory,” which, in these theologians’ view, is not a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. The statement was openly criticized within the SPC, while some of the theologians who signed it were invited to explain their views before the Holy Council of Bishops at one of its May 2017 sessions. Soon after, several priest-professors from the FOT were deprived of their main parish duties and were only allowed to assist in liturgies. By the Patriarch’s immediate decision, they were let go from the editorial boards in the church electronic and print media. All this was accompanied by a warning that whoever violated this rule should be sanctioned in a church-disciplinary process.
The main subject of the Montenegrin law is ownership of religious property. Although every single article of the law has legal deficiencies, the most significant problems are presented in Articles 62 and 63. These two articles state that three categories of property and land owned by religious communities—1) those built with public revenue, 2) those owned by “Montenegro” prior to 1918, and 3) those built with joint investment of citizens—no longer belong to the religious communities themselves but are now considered to be “cultural heritage” of Montenegro and are, therefore, to be owned by the state.