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Serbian religious leader Pavle dies at age 95

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Head of Serbian Orthodox Church often spoke against violence during the ethnic Balkan wars.

Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pavle, who called for peace and conciliation during the Balkan ethnic wars of the 1990s but failed to openly condemn extreme Serb nationalism, died Sunday. He was 95.

There have been reports of an internal struggle over who would succeed Mr. Pavle, a respected theologian and linguist known for personal humility and modesty. The favourite is influential Bishop Amfilohije, a hard-liner known for his anti-Western and ultra-nationalist stands.

The seven-million member church said its highest body, the Holy Synod, could announce Monday when Mr. Pavle’s successor will be chosen. At least 40 days must pass after Mr. Pavle’s death before a new patriarch can be elected.

Mr. Pavle took over the church in 1990 just as the collapse of communism ended years of state policy of repressing religion. He often spoke against violence in the ethnic wars Orthodox Serbs fought against Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims during the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.

“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,” Mr. Pavle had appealed – mostly in vain – in 1991 as fighting raged between Serbs and Croats over disputed territories in Croatia.

“It is only the will of the devil that is served by this war,” the patriarch was quoted as saying in 1992 but stopped short of naming names, notably not going explicitly against former President Slobodan Milosevic’s ultra-nationalist policies, which triggered the wars.

The Serbian Church eventually broke with its tradition of formal neutrality in 2000, openly urging the Serbian strongman to step down after the regimes humiliating defeat in 1999 following NATO bombing that ended Mr. Milosevic’s crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

The church’s demand for Mr. Milosevic’s resignation – which he ignored – helped lead to the popular revolt that eventually ousted the autocratic president in October 2000. Mr. Milosevic died in 2006 during his trial on war crimes charges at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

Mr. Pavle had been hospitalized for two years with heart and lung problems and died of cardiac arrest in his sleep, the church and the Belgrade Military Hospital said.

The news of patriarch’s death was first announced by Mr. Amfilohije, who has served as acting head of the church during most of Mr. Pavle’s hospitalization. State TV showed Mr. Amfilohije breaking into tears as he held a prayer.

Bells tolled from Serbian churches after the news of Mr. Pavle’s death and the state-run television aired documentaries about his life. Serbia’s government proclaimed three days of national mourning starting Monday.

Pavle’s body was displayed in an open coffin at Belgrade’s main Saborna Church, with top officials and clergy attending the prayers. Thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects to the highly popular patriarch.

The church said Mr. Pavle’s funeral will be held Thursday at a monastery in the Belgrade suburb of Rakovica.

President Boris Tadic said Patriarch Pavle’s death was a “huge loss” for the nation. Mr. Tadic said Mr. Pavle was “one of those people who by their very existence bring together the entire nation.

“His departure is my personal loss too,” Mr. Tadic said, explaining he had often consulted with the patriarch about crucial national decisions.

Mr. Tadic added that Patriarch Pavle was respected worldwide by both the Orthodox Christian churches and the pope.

After Mr. Milosevic’s departure the patriarch then launched a damage-control campaign for Kosovo, struggling to rally international support for protection of ancient Serbian churches and monasteries that came under attacks by Kosovo’s mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians.

Critics, however, faulted him and other Serbian religious leaders for failing to be equally vocal when Serb troops previously destroyed Catholic churches and Muslim mosques in Croatia and Bosnia, or launched major ethnic-cleansing campaigns against non-Serbs in the Balkans.

Mr. Pavle was also against a papal visit to Serbia – because of a long-standing schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox. Serbia is one of the rare European countries not visited by the Roman Catholic Pope.

Mr. Pavle was born as Gojko Stojcevic on Sept. 11, 1914, in the village of Kucani, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the time and is now in Croatia.

From 1944 to 1955, he was a monk at the Raca Monastery in central Serbia. From 1950, he lectured at the Prizen Seminary in Kosovo – the position which he retained until his election as the patriarch on Dec. 1, 1990.

Bishop Lavrentije said the Patriarch’s death is no reason to be sad because the Patriarch always had sought to reach out to God. Mr. Lavrentije said Mr. Pavle “has been more in heaven” than on earth.

“The Serbian people now have someone to represent them before God better than anyone else,” Mr. Lavrentije said.

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