Men of God receive their call-up papers

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The Independent Online
IN THE church of Alexander Nevsky yesterday, the icon-cleaner had a tough job. After every five Orthodox faithful kissed the painting of the victor of the River Neva - 13th-century conqueror of the Knights of the Teutonic Order - the middle-aged lady in black would step forward and wipe the icon with rubbing alcohol to prepare it for more lips. Some of the Belgrade worshippers kissed the icon six times, others knelt before it, many wept. The sublime chants, the incense, the smoke-blackened saints who stared gloomily down at us from the dark apse; you could understand how the Orthodox Easter induced a kind of willing suspension of disbelief. Nato refused an Easter ceasefire. God did not.

But in the priests' office behind the basilica, Father Branislav Jelic was wrestling with the old problem of rendering under Caesar those things which are Caesar's. On Good Friday, the 32-year-old priest had received his call-up papers for the Yugoslav army - the very same defence forces that had only a day earlier called upon the Orthodox Church to support its struggle against Nato. "I must go to the draft office and tell them that I cannot join because I am an Orthodox priest," he said. "An applicant for the priesthood cannot kill anybody and if a priest kills he cannot be a priest any more."

At the entrance to the church, I had taken a copy of the Patriarch's one-page Easter message to the Orthodox with its admonition in red print: "Friend - Believe There Is Hope." A soldier who dies will go to Heaven if he is a Christian, it announced. A soldier who finds an unchristened comrade gravely wounded can baptise him on the battlefield and assure him a place in paradise. If the wounded man survives, then a priest can complete the process of entering the Holy Orthodox faith. To those celebrating a more supreme resurrection yesterday, this was a very serious message to take to the war from the Church militant.

And militant is as good a way as any to describe the mood of the Orthodox priests this Easter, beneath a massive oil painting - against whose thick golden frame I banged my head as I cracked Easter eggs with the clergy - of Nevsky himself, a gift from the Polish people to King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic. "I think they do not understand our regulations," Fr Branislav said meekly - "they" being `the authorities' - "but I cannot refuse the draft. I can only try to explain my position. If I refuse them, they can press charges against me."

There's no lack of patriotism in the Basilica of Alexander Nevsky. Kosovo - or Kosovo-Metohija as every true Serb must call it in reference to the southern church lands of the province - remains their holy ground. But the priests do not believe Serbia's claim is synonymous with support for Slobodan Milosevic. "We are united because of Kosovo - not because of the authorities," Fr Milan Milovanovic said. "Our unity is abused by the authorities."

Fr Branislav went further. "Our state does not have a moral right to ask what it is asking of our Church because it did not invest anything in the church. They [the government] were destroying the Christian spirit and faith and the morals of the people. Property taken from the church after the Second World War has not yet been returned. They also do not permit schools to introduce religious education - which has had devastating consequences for our youth."

In the perfumed church, Fr Vaja Joric, heavily bearded with small, sharp eyes, had read the Patriarch's message to his flock this Easter. Now he was in more reflective mood. "We are asking the world's governments not to bomb our people because our people are not to blame," he pleaded. "Our factories are places that feed thousands of our people. How are people going to live in this impoverished land? Our children are being punished..." And we followed a familiar walk down memory lane; of Serb dispossession in Kosovo by Turks, Albanians, communists, Tito, of a quarter of Kosovo Albanians who "have no documents", of "foreign" influence on them to demand independence.

But these men are no red-neck nationalists. Beneath the dome of the church, dark with candle-smoke, is a painting of Jesus, his eyes wide and severe, his right hand raised in blessing. If he could see the destitute, fearful Albanians I saw in Pristina last week, I ask the priests, what would their redeemer have said? In so far as they can - and a president's anger can embrace a priest or two - the clergymen of Alexander Nevsky condemn the suffering of Kosovo's Muslims.

Fr Vaja, who comes from Bijeljina in Bosnia, chooses to reply. "We believe the world belongs to God," he said with great care. "We Serbs believe that Kosovo-Metohija is a holy land because of its symbolic, religious qualities. We believe that in Kosovo there is space for everybody. But the souls of certain people are not so spacious. Certain people prefer the Devil and evil, injustice and untruth. This is why hatred and violence are in their hearts. We Serbs would like our people to have love for God in their hearts and therefore love for their fellow human beings... But human love withered here. Jesus is crying from the cross once again. We do not count the suffering of Serbs as more important than that of Albanians."

Fr Milan - at 62 an older, wiser man - spoke plainly. "You can be sure the Serb people have been invested with evil as a nation, but there is a large percentage of devout peoplewho cannot be manipulated - even in war. A soldier who is a believer will not kill. In past wars, our army and our peopple waged honourable battles and honourable wars and our struggles were always defensive. Serbs are still the same - but they must free themselves from the government, the authorities. We must get back to our roots." Fr Vaja took up this theme with enthusiasm.

"Those people who are the authorities here are a mystery even to us," he said. "This is why we ask the world not to punish us. The authorities are not called communists any more but their ideas are the same. They are close together and listen only to each other. Our president is a socialist and his wife is a communist - and he obeys her quite a lot!"

Suddenly, the theme has become clear, more powerful than any sermon. "The authorities are very, very, very rich," Fr Vaja went on. "And we are more and more poor. So the authorities, the government, do not feel the sanctions - and I think they do not even feel the war. The sanctions [of the Bosnian war] were imposed against our children. The sanctions allowed the authorities to sell us things at high prices - they were a prize to them, and we were the ones who were punished."

That, Fr Vaja said quietly, is as far as he wants to go. I can see why. The last of his flock have left the church. The regular morning air raid alert has not sounded because the skies are wet and grey. Dark enough to reflect the thoughts of priests - and keep Nato away.