Serb Government Rebuffs Top Cleric for Comments on Kosovo PivotBy
Deputy premier rebuffs Serbian patriarch’s comments on Kosovo
Dispute arises as president calls for debate on Kosovo
Serbia’s government told the country’s dominant Christian Orthodox Church not to pressure President Aleksandar Vucic on the future of Kosovo as he readies the Balkan country for a debate on future ties.
Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic rebuffed comments from the church’s influential leader, Patriarch Irinej, who said in an interview this weekend that he hoped that Russia would keep backing Serbia’s claim over Kosovo and that Vucic would respect the popular national sentiment that Kosovo is still part of Serbia. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008 against the wishes of the Serb minority there.
“I expect that the Serbian Orthodox Church, as the centuries-old guardian of our people and culture in Kosovo, will be a good partner and that it will truly help with its influence to establish a new kind of dialogue between Serbs and Albanians,” Mihajlovic said in an emailed statement on Monday. “I expect that they do not exert pressure on President Aleksandar Vucic before the start of the talks on Kosovo.”
Vucic’s call for a nationwide debate follows demands by the European Union for Serbia to mend ties with Kosovo or be prevented from joining the world’s largest trading bloc. Almost two decades after 1998-99 NATO-led bombing drove the Serbian army out of Kosovo, EU-mediated talks between the former foes have made little progress. Backed by Russia and China, Serbia has blocked Kosovo from joining international organizations, including from gaining a seat at the United Nations.
In the interview, Patriarch Irinej reiterated concern about the fate of Serbian churches and monasteries in Kosovo. Many Serbs consider Kosovo the heartland of their Orthodox faith and fear that if it joins Unesco, the church may lose control over its monasteries and places of worship. Irinej also called for a return of Serbs who fled Kosovo after the war.
The Orthodox Church is the dominant religion in Serbia, accounting for as many as 6 million of the country’s 7.1 million people. The church and the army traditionally rank as two most trusted institutions in opinion polls. Mihajlovic, however, said the largest former Yugoslav republic had to take a different approach toward Kosovo.
“All of the policies so far have taken Kosovo even further away from Serbia,” Mihajlovic said. “Therefore we need a new, wise and rational policy that will be implemented by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the government of Serbia.”