The new Serbian patriarch, 59-year-old Porfirije (Perić), has been elected in Belgrade. Chosen according to the ancient Orthodox tradition among the three main candidates, he succeeds 90-year-old Irinej (Gavrilović), who died on 20 November 2020.
For many observers, the new head of the Serbian Church represents “hope for the Vatican” and for ecumenical relations, qualities that leave people in Moscow wondering.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the numerically most important Orthodox Churches, with more than 10 million worshippers in nearly 50 eparchies, and has always been considered the “favourite sister” of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In the liturgical diptychs in which the Churches in communion are remembered, Serbia occupies between the fifth and seventh positions (out of 14), depending on the place of celebration. Moscow is remembered as the fifth, the first after the oldest Churches.
In the recent clash between Moscow and Constantinople, caused by the recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly in 2018, Serbs immediately sided with the Russian Church.
This position reflects not only loyalty towards their Russian confreres, but also fears among Serbs that they might suffer the same fate with regard to the claims for autonomy of the Macedonian Church and that of Montenegro, which the Serbian Church considers indivisible parts of its “canonical territory”.
Even in Kosovo, a disputed country with a Muslim majority, local authorities would like to see a “National Church”. This would provoke serious reactions among Serbs, who regard Kosovo as their 'motherland'.
The Serbian patriarch, in fact, does not have a specific city title such as that of Moscow or Constantinople, but he is first of all “Archbishop of Peć” (seat of Kosovo, where the historic patriarchal monastery is located), “Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovac” and then “Patriarch of Serbia”.
For the election, several Serbian bishops had asked for a secret ballot, as the late Patriarch Irinej had also recommended, to avoid the uncertainty of the draw, eventually done by randomly inserting three cards in the pages of a Bible.
The election took place in a rather tense atmosphere due to certain issues, including the sudden hospitalisation of the president of the synod, Bishop Lavrentiy of Šabac. He had “a serious negative reaction to the coronavirus vaccine.” Bishop Vasilj of Sremski was chosen in his place, but this was seen by the faithful as a worrying sign.
The political situation in Serbia is very turbulent. Organised crime has infiltrated the top echelons of the country’s administration. Dissatisfaction over Kosovo is high since it declared independence in 2007 with the support of the West.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's sovereignty, nor does Russia, but last autumn Belgrade and Pristina signed a cooperation agreement, brokered by Washington.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić fears that the new patriarch may meddle in his plans in this regard, reviving nationalist and religious nostalgia over the Albanian-majority territory.
The Russians, on the other hand, expect Porfirije to keep the hard-line stance of his predecessor, supporting Moscow's position against Constantinople and Kyiv.
Porfirije himself, in a speech on Serbian television after Irinej's death, said he shared the vies of the late patriarch, according to whom “the Russian people are like a great ship, carrying with us the East Slavic identity and faith. We have the same values and ideas about the world.”
For Irinej, however, “the same unity also applies to the Greeks and all the Orthodox,” even though the “blood ties that unite us with the Russians” do not exist in their case.
The new patriarch is known for his diplomatic abilities, highlighted in his service at the Zagreb-Ljubljana see, in the Catholic territories of Croatia and Slovenia, and he is recognised as the most moderate of the candidates admitted to the draw.
Moscow would have preferred one of the other two, Bishop Irinej (Bulović) or Bishop Ioanniky (Michović), greater supporters of Russia’s positions within Orthodoxy.