Patriarch Pavle: Head of the Serbian Orthodox Church during the Kosovo War

Patriarch Pavle, who has died at the age of 95, was a devout and personally meek former monk, who during the 1990s found himself head of the Serbian Orthodox Church at a time of huge turmoil in the Balkans.

It was an era of ethnic cleansing and massacres. Not all of these were carried out by Serbs, but that community's leaders included ruthless figures, such as President Slobodan Milosevic, who have been classed as war criminals on a major scale. Patriarch Pavle, who in general terms denounced war and conflict, eventually condemned Milosevic, though the churchman's critics charged that he should have sooner and more strongly condemned extreme Serb nationalism.

He was not ideally suited to the times or for his post. When chosen – by lot, from three candidates – for his office, he described himself as "weak". Once chosen his statements were, as one obituarist put it, "often naive, inconsistent and incoherent." Several years ago, elderly and ailing, he asked to be relieved from his post, but his church would not let him step down.

Pavle was born Gojko Stojcevic in the village of Kucani in 1914. Orphaned at an early age, he survived a bout of tuberculosis, which was then a killer disease. He studied at a seminary in Sarajevo, at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Belgrade and in Athens. His life thus encompassed the ending of the First World War, the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the establishment of a new Yugoslav state and the Second World War.

From 1944 to 1955 he was a monk at the Raca Monastery in central Serbia, and was later elected as a bishop. He put much effort into constructing and repairing churches and monasteries, many of which had been damaged, often deliberately, in various conflicts. He also had first-hand experience of violence for, while a bishop, he was attacked in a Kosovo street by one or more Muslim youths. In his seventies at the time, he was beaten so badly that he spent months in hospital.

Local legend has it that he was so forgiving that he sought out one of the youths involved and attempted to have him released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for the incident. One version of events – which may be more of a parable than a completely factual account – has it that the youth was so impressed that he was later baptised into the Orthodox Church.

This was one of many stories about Pavle, some of which touched on his ascetic lifestyle. A diminutive man, he famously rose early and ate little, often fasting. While other bishops travelled in cars, he walked or used public transport, some of the faithful revering him as a "saint who walks". He was renowned for his humility and simplicity, for example taking pride in wearing shoes which he found in the street and personally repaired.

He was an academic as well as an ascetic. His output included supervising the first translation of the New Testament to be approved by the Serbian Orthodox Church and many other religious works, some of formidable size. When the New Testament was published, in 1990, Pavle may have thought that the most eventful years of his life were behind him. This was not so.

His accession to the patriarchy came not long before violence broke out between Serbs and Croats over disputed territories in Croatia as Slobodan Milosevic pursued ultra-nationalist policies.

"It is only the will of the devil that is served by this war," the Patriarch was quoted as declaring in 1992 in one of his many generalised condemnations of violence. "God help us understand that we are human beings and that we must live as human beings, so that peace would come into our country and bring an end to the killing."

But he stopped short of naming names, notably not going explicitly against Milosevic. His church's relations with the Serbian strongman were problematic, oscillating between warm endorsement and occasional criticism. But the fact that Pavle sometimes aligned himself with figures the world regarded as war criminals has left a mark on his reputation.

Eventually in 2000 he and his church broke with its tradition of formal neutrality by urging Milosevic to step down after the regime's humiliating defeat following a NATO bombing campaign. This may have encouraged the popular revolt which later that year ousted Milosevic. Milosevic was indicted for crimes against humanity and put on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, where he died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006. History, at least as written by Western historians, will probably judge that the Patriarch should have distanced himself more from the Milosevic regime at a time when it was responsible for large numbers of civilian deaths and enforced population movement.

Pavle's last two years were spent in hospital, where he needed constant treatment for heart and lung problems. He died of a cardiac arrest in his sleep. The Serbian government proclaimed three days of national mourning. His body was displayed in an open coffin at Belgrade's main Saborna church, with senior officials and clergy attending the prayers. Thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects to the Patriarch, who was a highly popular figure.

In a tribute, the Serbian President, Boris Tadic, said: "There are people who bond entire nations and Pavle was such a person. He was one of those people who by their very existence bring together the entire nation."

David McKittrick

Patriarch Pavle (Gojko Stojcevic), Serbian spiritual leader: born Kucani 11 September 1914; died Belgrade 15 November 2009.

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