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The Serbian Orthodox Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The 20th century in Europe closed the same way it opened – war in the Balkans. The world witnessed snipers terrorize Sarajevo, soldiers torch churches and mosques, refugees frozen with fear and bulldozers uncover mass graves. “Balkan” is now synonymous with disintegration and bloodshed.

The Balkan Peninsula, a complex web of mountains and valleys, plains and streams, lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. More than a quarter of those who inhabit the peninsula – Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Serbs and Slovenians – descend from central European Slav tribes who migrated south in the seventh century A.D. These tribes have evolved into distinct nationalities, their distinctiveness buttressed by the natural barriers of the peninsula, proximity to more powerful – and competing – neighbors and a variety of religious expressions. Not unlike the narratives of other Balkan states, Serbia’s saga is one of chronic crisis and conflict. The Serbian Orthodox Church, which has played a leading role in the development of a distinct Serbian identity, has served as a cultural repository and a bastion of faith when the Serbian nation had appeared imperiled.

Obscure origins. Byzantine sources cite the existence of Byzantine Christian missionaries among Serbian villages of the Balkan interior as early as the seventh century. Not to be outdone, the papacy dispatched Latin missionaries to the Adriatic coast, where they evangelized a number of Serbian settlements. These Serbian communities (or zupas), while autonomous, formed a confederacy led by a knez (prince), who played off the rival powers of Byzantium and the Bulgars to the east and the papacy to the west.

The Serbian confederacies of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries did not form a cohesive Serbian nation. Internal squabbling, vacillating loyalties to Byzantium or Rome, difficult terrain and constant war prevented such a development. But Byzantine Christianity, bolstered by the use of Slavonic to teach and celebrate the divine mysteries, slowly gathered the Serb people into a cohesive unit, assuming dominance over the Latin bishoprics in Bar and Dubrovnik by the early 12th century. Ironically, Byzantine Christianity did not take hold among these Southern Slavs until after the collapse of the mission to the Slavs of Moravia by the brothers Cyril and Methodius.

Banished from Moravia in 886, two of the brothers’ disciples, Clement and Naum, settled in the town of Ohrid (now in the Republic of Macedonia). There they furthered their teachers’ evangelization of the Slavs. Clement, installed as bishop, is said to have trained thousands of Slavonic-speaking priests and reformed the Glagolitic alphabet devised by St. Cyril, renaming it Cyrillic, the precursor of the modern alphabet of the Belarussians, Bulgarians, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Russians, Serbs and Ukrainians. Naum founded the Ohrid Literary School, which translated biblical and theological texts into Slavonic. Their deeds played a crucial role in aligning the Bulgarians and Serbs (both of whom now claim Ohrid and Sts. Clement and Naum as their patrimony) with the world of Byzantium. (The churches of Byzantium and Rome split in 1054 because of growing linguistic, doctrinal and political differences.)

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