Patriarch backs party led by war-crimes suspect

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The Independent Online

Patriarch Pavle, aged 90 but still active in politics, was photographed at a weekend gathering of hardliners at Belgrade's Sava Centre watching a film compiled by the Radicals entitled Istina (Truth), which shows footage of atrocities allegedly carried out against Serbian soldiers and civilians during the Bosnian and Croatian wars in the early 1990s. The bearded church leader watched impassively during the gruesome hour-long video, which included shots of the decapitation by Bosnian Muslim forces of Rade Rogic, a Serbian soldier, and footage of the bodies of Serbian civilians allegedly murdered by Croatian forces in Gospic.

The Patriarch 's acceptance of the Radicals' invitation represented unprecedented moral support by the Orthodox Church for Tomislav Nikolic, the former municipal undertaker who has led the Radicals since Mr Seselj unexpectedly gave himself up to the International Tribunal for War Crimes in The Hague, to stand trial for ethnic cleansing of Croatian civilians in Vojvodina and other crimes carried out by the Radicals' chetnik militia men when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s. By attending the film showing, the Patriarch, the highest moral authority in Belgrade, also gave credibility to Mr Nikolic's insistence that he is innocent of persistent charges that he also took part in atrocities by Serbian forces in Croatia, political sources say.

The liberal newspaper Vreme has carried a photograph of Patriarch Pavle seated next to Mr Nikolic at the rally, describing the film shown as "similar to the early work of Leni Riefenstahl", Hitler's film-maker. Mr Nikolic told the crowd that the bizarre movie was "an attempt to respond to further demonisation of the Serbian people and charges that only Serbs carried out war crimes".

Vreme said the film was edited hurriedly "to help the Serbian public feel better about ceremonies to mark the 10th anniversary of Srebrenica".Bosnian Serb forces led by Ratko Mladic massacred up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995.

Patriarch Pavle this month paid lip service to political correctness by sending condolences to the families of the dead at Srebrenica. But his association with Mr Nikolic evidently means the church wants to curry favour with the Radicals, who are Serbia's largest party, according to recent opinion polls. Mr Nikolic is the troubled Balkan nation's most popular politician, just ahead of Boris Tadic, the pro-Western Serbian President.

The Patriarch's hobnobbing with the Radicals not only makes them seem respectable but also apparently lends credibility to Mr Nikolic's attempts to defend himself against charges that he also was personally involved in war crimes as a member of Serbian units who shot some 50 unarmed, elderly Croatian civilians at the village of Antin in eastern Slavonia in late 1991.

He denies the charges, made by Natasa Kandic, head of Belgrade's Humanitarian Law Fund. Mr Nikolic says that he was "just a sentry" when serving with Mr Seselj's volunteers at Antin and that he arrived there a month after the killings of civilians. Mr Seselj at the time conferred on him the Order of Chetnik Knights, citing his henchman's "personal courage in defending the fatherland".

The Radical film, said Vreme "showed that Serbs were killed, and that if they killed it was only in response to war crimes against them or in self defence". The film also was intended as a counterpoint to a video of Serbian paramilitaries shooting unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica that was aired on Serbian television this year. It was finally made available for broadcast through the efforts of Ms Kandic, who has campaigned tirelessly for the victims of war crimes.