Angry Serbs rally behind their martyrs: As Belgrade celebrates a historic mutiny, parallels are being drawn with its current quarrel with the West, writes Emma Daly

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The Independent Online
'NO, no, I won't talk to you. Our brothers in Bosnia are being attacked by Britain, France and the United States so it would not be fair to talk to the Western press,' said the Serbian Orthodox priest. Then he launched into a diatribe about evil Western complicity with jihad in Bosnia. Ten minutes later he smiled and said: 'I feel much better now. What did you want to talk about?'

Defensive, aggressively nationalistic but also charming, the priest was convinced - by propaganda, folk history and memories of persecution in the past - that the Serbs are at war with the forces of darkness. 'Ethnic cleansing', massacres and mass rapes are brushed aside. So is the fact that the Bosnian Muslim enemy is weak and has no desire to conquer Serbia. 'Have you heard of jihad?' asked the priest. 'They don't like Christians, that's what the war in Bosnia is about.'

Behind him, on a hill, stood the half-built cathedral of Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, worker of miracles, defender of nationhood.

Tomorrow, thousands of Serbs will attend a service in the cathedral to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the desecration of St Sava's grave by Serbia's Ottoman rulers. On 10 May 1594, the Turks brought the saint's remains to Belgrade, and burnt them on a plateau above the city. It was punishment for a Serbian mutiny. Patriarch Pavle and his Russian Orthodox counterpart, will sing a liturgy on the site where Sava's ashes were scattered. The Russian visitor will then go to Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro - all areas where Serbs are in conflict.

The service is bound to offer a heady mixture of God and country. The Patriarch, as a Christian, opposes war and killing; as head of a nationalist church, he supports Serbian aims in the Bosnian conflict.

It is a paradox that the Serbs are aggressive, yet feel they are victims. It allows Serbs to present their attacks on a weak foe as defensive, and to classify the horrified reaction of the West to atrocities as the latest proof of an ancient, global, anti-Serbian vendetta.

After three years of sanctions and pariah status, Serbs are not inclined to take the medicine administered by the West. Filled with a sense of wounded innocence, they opt for apocalyptic threats. 'What the rest of the world fears, the Serbs seem to invoke - the Third World War,' wrote Matija Beckovic, a prominent nationalist poet.

The Serbs have suffered greatly in the past. They were subjugated by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and hundreds of thousands were killed by Croatian fascists during the Second World War.

The liberal Belgrade weekly Vreme wrote disapprovingly this week about a new language textbook for 13-year-olds. In the book a commentary on a nationalistic poem, the Defence of the Country, notes: 'With a fiery heart, and a cool head the country can be defended, but only those who have seized the opportunity of death have entered the book of legends that inspire new feats and great words.'

The book, says Vreme, 'suggests that heroic death is more valuable than any kind of life'. This, of course, is a perfect description of jihad - holy war.

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