BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, who often criticized Western policies toward Serbia and urged close relations with Slavic ally Russia, has died after testing positive for the coronavirus, the church said Friday. He was 90.
A brief church statement said that the patriarch died shortly after 7 a.m. Friday in a Belgrade military hospital. Bells on churches throughout Serbia tolled and mourners flocked to light candles as the government proclaimed three days of national mourning.
The patriarch was hospitalized with the virus early in November, soon after attending the funeral of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Bishop Amfilohije, who also died from complications caused by the COVID-19 infection.
Thousands of mourners, most of them without masks, gathered at the funeral in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, on Nov. 1, in violation of coronavirus-fighting measures proclaimed by the small Adriatic state's authorities. The burial turned out to be a major coronavirus-spreading event, with several high ranking church officials and others who were there later testing positive.
The church said Irinej will be buried in the main Saint Sava Church in Belgrade on Sunday — another mass gathering that is unlikely to be prevented by the authorities.
Since Amfilohije’s death, and the hospitalization of the patriarch, Serbian priests have started to appeal for their parishioners to take the deadly virus seriously. They had previously downplayed the threat from the global pandemic and largely ignored bans on large gatherings and preventive measures during prayers and other church services.
Like the rest of the Balkans, both Serbia and Montenegro are seeing daily record numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, and hospitals are running out of beds.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also attended the burial in Montenegro. Following the news of Irinej's death, Vucic posted on Instagram Friday: “It was an honor to have known you,” alongside a black and white photo of the patriarch. “People like you are never gone.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message of condolence to Vucic, praising the late patriarch for “strengthening the unity of the whole Orthodox world," according to Serbia's state TV.
Irinej, who wielded considerable political influence in Serbia, took over the church’s helm in January 2010 after the death of his predecessor, Patriarch Pavle, who was a highly popular and respected church leader in the Balkan country.
At the time, Irinej was seen as a relative moderate and a compromise choice among the factions within the church.
But throughout his church reign, he maintained the hardline nationalist stance the church developed during the wars that cleaved the Balkans in the 1990s. That included beliefs that the Serbs were historic victims of injustice and played on alleged anti-Serb policies in rival Balkan nations as well as the international community.
He often criticized Western policies toward Serbia over its breakaway Kosovo province, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008, and he kept close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and the populist Serbian president.
Irinej’s traditional enthronement was held in Kosovo in October 2010 to underscore his dedication to Serbian historic claims that the majority ethnic Albanian-populated former province is the cradle of its statehood.
“We can’t and must not give away what has been ours for centuries and which has never in history belonged to the Albanian state, even if it has been taken from us and put under foreign occupation,” Irinej said in an interview posted on the church’s website.
Irinej added that “our biggest problem is not our centuries-old neighbors, the Albanians, but ‘developed’ Europe and the West in general.”
Irinej, however, was among the rare Serbian church dignitaries who openly called for improved ties with the Roman Catholic Church. He said the two churches should overcome historic differences.
The Serbian church is one of a group of autocephalous, or independent, churches that make up the Orthodox Christian faith. The Orthodox Churches split from the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century in an event called the Great Schism.
AP writer Jovana Gec contributed.