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Orthodox churches urge ‘fitting’ burial for Slobodan Milosevic


The head of the Serbian Orthodox church has sent condolences to the family of the deceased Slobodan Milosevic, and urged the war crimes suspect to be given a "fitting burial" in his homeland.

"Every person has an inviolable right to a grave and a fitting burial, especially people who, like Slobodan Milosevic, exerted an influence on their epoch, and on historical developments both for the Serbian nation and other nations in difficult times," Serbian Patriarch Pavle said in a statement, shortly before Milosevic’s body was flown to Belgrade on 15 March.

At the same time, a spokesperson for Russia’s Orthodox church criticised the UN War Crimes Tribunal’s rejection in December of a request by Milosevic to travel to Moscow for medical treatment.

"We know the Serbian people have mixed feelings about the personality of their former leader – it isn’t for us to evaluate his actions now that he faces the judgement of God, whose righteousness we do not doubt," the secretary of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate’s external church relations department, Nikolai Balashov, told Russia’s Interfax news agency. "Yet the course of events has shown the Tribunal’s decision was an inhumane one."

Milosevic died of a heart attack on 11 March while in prison at The Hague, where he went on trial in February 2002 on 66 charges – including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – relating to his role during wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo between 1991 and 1999.

Memorial services have been held in Orthodox churches in Serbia and Montenegro and the Republika Srpska of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Russia, where the former ruler’s wife, Mirjana Markovic, has lived in exile with family members since 2003 after being charged with corruption and abuse of power in her homeland. Milosevic is to be buried on 18 March at Pozarevac, eastern Serbia, where he was born in 1941.

News reports noted that Milosevic’s father, Svetozar, who committed suicide in 1962, had studied for the Orthodox priesthood in Belgrade alongside the future Patriarch Pavle before going on to work as a theology professor.

Milosevic rose to power in 1987 as a member of Yugoslavia’s ruling League of Communists and became Serbian president in 1990 and was once praised by his country’s Orthodox bishops for providing military support for Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia.

However, the church’s Holy Synod called for his resignation in June 1999 during a NATO bombing campaign. In September 2000, Patriarch Pavle urged the armed forces to "respect the people’s will" after Milosevic was defeated in a presidential election by Vojislav Kostunica, whose government handed him over to the UN Tribunal the following June.

The Serbian church has traditionally enjoyed close ties with its Russian Orthodox counterpart

"Obviously, Milosevic was christened in his childhood because his father was an Orthodox priest," Moscow patriarchate spokesperson, Vladimir Vigilyansky, told the Itar-Tass news agency on 11 March.

"The request of the family which prays to the Lord to forgive the sins of a member is important."

Still, the Roman Catholic Church’s Sarajevo archdiocese vicar-general, Matko Zovkic, in Bosnia, where 270 000 mostly Muslim civilians died in the 1992-5 war, said religious leaders counted on the UN Tribunal to continue to hold suspected Balkan war criminals to account.

"Milosevic has escaped human justice, but he cannot escape God’s justice," Catholic priest, Zovkic, told Ecumenical News International. "We must hope above all that his death won’t be used to revive ethnic hatred and conflict in our region."

(c) Ecumenical News International