Serbian church leaders turn on Milosevic

The Serbian Orthodox Church, once an ardent supporter of President Slobodan Milosevic's nationalist ambitions in the Balkans, yesterday added its voice to the groundswell of public opinion turning against the government with a withering attack on what it called a "Communist, Godless and Satanic" regime.

An unambiguous statement of support for the anti-government protests, now into their eighth week, was read out at the regular afternoon opposition rally in central Belgrade to a rapturous reception.

"He [Milosevic] has already set up against the whole world and now he wants to pit us against each other and trigger bloodshed in order to preserve power," said the statement, was drawn up by the Church's governing Synod at an emergency session earlier in the day and signed by Patriarch Pavle.

The Church has had its share of problems with Mr Milosevic because his government refused to return property confiscated by Tito's Communists in 1945 and failed to encourage the growth of religious schools. But in the run-up to the 1991-95 war it threw its weight behind Mr Milosevic's expansionist ambitions, seeing the dream of a Greater Serbia as an opportunity for an Orthodox revival.

Yesterday's statement was still nationalist in tone, accusing Mr Milosevic of betraying Serbs in Bosnia and the Krajina region, now reconquered by Croatia. But it was a significant indication of the way in which public opinion is moving away from Mr Milosevic. In recent days, scores of judges, university professors and other prominent officials have come out openly in favour of the anti-government protests.

On New Year's Day, the Writers' Union, which initially applauded Mr Milosevic in the 1980s, issued a fierce attack saying the President was the "enemy of Serbia". The union has revived its famous "protest evenings" - originally established to bring together dissidents of Tito's regime.

On the streets of Belgrade, tens of thousands of people again turned up yesterday to repeat the demands they have been making since late November: for Mr Milosevic to acknowledge the victory scored by the opposition coalition Zajedno [Together] in elections for city councils across the country.

Although the numbers were relatively modest, partly because of the bitter ice and cold and partly because of a menacing presence of armed riot police a few streets away from Republic Square, the focus of rallies and protesters was infused with a new spirit of optimism. Opposition political parties hoped that Mr Milosevic was on the verge of accepting the results of an inquiry by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) into the local elections and grant the opposition the victories it has been claiming. Mr Milosevic had been due to respond to the OSCE survey by yesterday, but it is now believed he will make a statement today or on Monday.

He has shrouded himself in silence in recent days, permitting no reference to the demonstrations either in his own communiques or on state media. His New Year message to the nation referred only to his intention of liberalising the economy in an effort to pull the country out of a deep slump exacerbated by war and four-and-a-half years of international sanctions that have yet to be completely lifted.

While Mr Milosevic's message was broadcast, hundreds of thousands of Belgraders thronged into the streets in their hundreds of thousands - an unmistakable political statement despite the overtly festive motive for the gathering.

Yesterday, the atmosphere remained good-humoured, with demonstrators cheering, setting off firecrackers and blowing through brightly coloured party whistles, while loudspeakers blasted out the frenetic, wildly energetic gypsy music from Underground, Emir Kusturica's prize-winning film about the wars in Yugoslavia.