Serbia: Mourners ignore COVID precautions at patriarch's coronavirus funeral

Orthodox priests during the funeral of the late Serbian Patriarch Irinej at the St Sava temple in Belgrade November 22 2020. EPA-EFE  Marko Djokovic

They included Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian PM Ana Brnabic, Milorad Dodik, the President of the Serb-dominated Bosnian entity, Republika Srpska, Montenegrin Prime Minister-designate Zdravko Krivokapic, as well as other Montenegro politicians like Andrija Mandic and Marko Milacic.

On that occasion most of the clerics, including Irinej, failed to wear masks and thousands who attended didn't follow social distancing measures.

Church bells tolled in Belgrade and many people flocked to the capital's main St Sava cathedral to mark the death of Irinej, a conservative who wielded considerable political influence in Serbia and maintained close ties with Russian Federation.

"For 10 years, as Patriarch, he led us quietly, wisely and patiently towards the kingdom of heaven", Hrizostom said, and added: "Despite all the temptations and troubles that the church went through, it remained the unshakable pillar".

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic was also in attendance.

Two giant screens were installed outside the Church of Saint Sava, the biggest Orthodox temple in the Balkans, so that the faithful can follow the ceremony, after which the patriarch's body will be laid to rest in the crypt.

He tested positive after attending the Nov 1 funeral of Metropolitan Amfilohije, the most senior cleric of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, who also died from COVID-19.

In the aftermath of the funeral, Serbian priests have been appealing to their parishioners to take the 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. The funeral will take place on Sunday.

The Patriarch's death came amid a regional spike in COVID-19 cases, and warnings that Amfilohije's mass funeral may have been a cause.

He became Patriarch in January 2010 after the death of Patriarch Pavle.

In 2018, Irinej sent a strongly worded protest letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew over the latter's decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. "People like you never depart", Vucic wrote on his Instagram account under a black and white photo of Irinej.

Irinej, a fierce Serb nationalist, often criticised Western policies towards Serbia and urged close relations with Slavic ally Russian Federation.

Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian Orthodox Christianity and it is home to some important monasteries.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is firmly opposed to the independence of Kosovo, which is Serbia's former southern province and is predominantly populated by Albanians.

Irinej was among the rare Serbian church dignitaries who openly called for improved ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Churches split from the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century in an event called the Great Schism.

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