Serbian Orthodox Church elects new head with close govt links

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Porfirije (L) could have more moderate views on Kosovo, considered by the SPC as the cradle of the Serbian Orthodoxy, than his much older predecessor

The Serbian Orthodox Church on Thursday elected as its new patriarch one of its youngest bishops known for his close ties to the Balkan country's political leaders.

Porfirije, bishop of Zagreb and Ljubljana, succeeds patriarch Irinej who died of coronavirus in November at the age of 90, a church statement said.

Analysts view Porfirije's election as the continuation of close ties between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and the country's political leaders led by President Aleksandar Vucic.

It is Vucic's choice as Porfirije is "someone who has for a long time been close to the authorities, close to Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Vucic", Drasko Djenovic, an expert in religious affairs, told AFP.

The election of a new patriarch comes as Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which proclaimed independence in 2008, are under pressure from new US President Joe Biden's administration and the European Union to relaunch a dialogue on normalisation of ties.

Porfirije could have more moderate views on Kosovo, considered by the SPC as the cradle of the Serbian Orthodoxy, than his much older predecessor, which suits Vucic, said Djenovic.

"Older bishops personify tough stances on Kosovo... the situation is completely different among young bishops who live in the 21st century."

Serbia and the SPC refuse to recognise the independence of ethnically Albanian-majority Kosovo.

The SPC was also strongly against Vucic's earlier suggestion on possible resolution of the Kosovo issue through land swaps.

Porfirije, born as Prvoslav Peric in northern Serbia, graduated from the Faculty of Theology in Belgrade and completed his postgraduate studies in Athens.

The polyglot bishop has a reputation as a moderate intellectual and has close ties with representatives of other religious groups.

For the election of its 46th patriarch, the SPC assembly known as Sabor, met for the first time in the crypt of the Church of Saint Sava, the biggest Orthodox temple in the Balkans.

The Sabor elected with a simple majority three candidates whose names were then sealed in three envelopes.

A monk then picked an envelope and thus "guided by the hand of God" elected a new SPC spiritual leader.

The new patriarch will be enthroned on Friday in Belgrade.

The influence of the SPC on Serbian society steadily grew after the fall of communism in the 1990s.

The great majority of Serbia's population of seven million people identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.