Walking the Narrow Path – Serbian Orthodox Church during the Ukraine Crisis

On the eve of the new year, Porphyry, the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), gave an hour and a half-long interview, exclusively to the public radio and television broadcast service of the Republic of Serbia (RTS). On that occasion, he announced, among other things, the decision to limit his presence in the media, “except during major religious holidays and when certain circumstances require it.”

According to His Holiness, the practical reasons were behind the decision. The election of the new Patriarch in February 2021 caused an avalanche of media inquiries for interviews with the new head of the SOC. In other words, media outlets absorbed up too much time and energy during that year. Also, Patriarch Porphyry pointed out the constant need of today’s media sphere for news and comments on certain events that are not of essential importance for the Serbian Orthodox Church (mainly political topics) and its believers, i.e., for the inner life of the Church.

However, the political circumstances in Europe have changed, and drastically so. Prior to the meeting between Serbian President Mr. Aleksandar Vučić and His Holiness Patriarch Porphyry, I foresaw two scenarios:

a) The Patriarch will publicly condemn all violence and invite the conflicting parties to the negotiation table;

b) The Patriarch will make a similar statement even if the tensions between the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine Onufriy and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill persist.

There were essentially three potential explanations: 

1) Explanation from the point of view of a Christian

Patriarch Porphyry, as the head of one of the Christian Churches based on the understanding of the entire human race as God’s creatures, will not declare himself for one or the other warring side. He made a similar statement after violence in Šabac, between opponents and supporters of the ruling party in the Republic of Serbia, which took place at the end of November 2021;

2) Explanation from the point of view of an Orthodox Christian

As the head of one of the Orthodox Christian Churches, Patriarch Porphyry cannot put himself on one side in the conflict between fraternal, Slavic people and Orthodox Christians, believers of the two local Orthodox Churches (Metropolitan of Kyiv and Patriarchate of Moscow). Indications of such an expected attitude can be found in the following excerpt from Patriarch Porphyry’s interview given on February 24, 2022, for the magazine The International Affairs of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“We will not change our position. We provide and will continue to provide significant support to Metropolitan Onufriy and his Church. The analogy you have drawn a little earlier between Ukraine and Montenegro is not accurate enough, but it is clear. And we, like you, have survived the collapse of the federal state. In that event, the foes of Orthodoxy – and I would say the foes of Christianity – saw an opportunity to split the autocephalous or autonomous Churches. Therefore, we understand well what is happening in Ukraine.”

3) Explanation from the perspective of the Patriarch

The obligation of the person in the position of Patriarch, at least within Orthodox Christianity, is, among other things, to overcome divisions, both within the Church (translation of the word church/ecclesia refers to the gathering), within society and state, but also among nations if there are justified reasons.

The official position of the Serbian Orthodox Church on the situation in Ukraine is not formulated by the Patriarch alone. Only the Holy Assembly of Bishops together with the Patriarch, as he is primus inter pares among the other (Arch)Bishops of the SOC, can formulate one and it will not take place until May i.e. it will be held after the Easter festivities.   

Until then, except for the publication on the official website of the Serbian Orthodox Church –posted right after the visit of the President of the Republic of Serbia to the Patriarch’s Court on Friday, February 25, one could not have expected that the SOC, as an institution, will further elaborate its position on the Ukrainian crisis.

“President Vučić informed Patriarch Porphyry about the decisions that the Serbian state leadership will make regarding the situation in Ukraine. The interlocutors expressed great concern and expressed hope that the conflicts would end soon. Every war is a tragedy, and for us it is a painful fact that two fraternal states and two completely close fraternal nations of the same faith, whose history and culture are inextricably intertwined, clashed. Hence, every sacrifice is a loss for everyone. The Serbian Orthodox Church prays to God, the creator of peace, to stop the use of weapons and to start a dialogue on overcoming the crisis.”

As for the President of Serbia, his arrival at the Patriarch’s Court for consultations with Patriarch Porphyry also reflects the aspiration towards a holistic and preventive approach to the crisis, albeit with different motives. Aware of the results of public opinion polls in Serbia, as well as the mood of members of the Serbian Progressive Party, Aleksandar Vucić has taken, to the greatest extent possible, a neutral position concerning the Ukrainian crisis as well as to voters’ preferences before the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Serbia.

A holistic approach to the crisis. Consultations with Patriarch Porphyry signal to the entire electorate, above all, responsible statesman-like behavior in accordance with the situation in the international arena, but also sensitivity to the sentiments that voters in Serbia have towards Russia as a Slavic and Orthodox country. Also, his rating cannot be harmed by the fact that the Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the two institutions in Serbia that are constantly leading since the level of citizens’ trust is measured.

A preventive approach to the crisis. Eventual losses of votes from the right-wing political spectrum, which favors Russia as was shown by the recent gathering in Belgrade on March 4, 2022, are amortized preventively and could withstand with the help of votes from moderately determined voters who are more inclined to compromise. Also, moderate voters, reluctant to make substantial changes in (foreign) policy and not positively predisposed towards revolutionary ideas, represent a solid barrier against criticism from the left political spectrum, embodied by the gathering of pro-Ukrainian citizens of Serbia on March 6, 2022.

As the President of all citizens of the Republic of Serbia, but also as the presidential candidate in the upcoming elections in April, maintaining equidistance towards opposite political spectrums, Aleksandar Vučić not only reflects Serbia’s foreign policy neutrality during the Ukraine crisis in the field of domestic policy; he also simulates institutional stability – preferred by moderate voters – such as that enjoyed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. No less important, it signals that he portrays himself to be above political and ideological divisions, which is in line with the statement of Patriarch Porphyry regarding the political violence in Šabac, from November 2021.

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