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Germany’s Orthodox Serbs

A parish builds a diverse community and preserves identity

by Joachim Dethlefs with photographs by Andy Spyra

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Apart from the occasional passerby, the streets of Mengendamm are deserted on this quiet Sunday morning. But as the clock approaches 10, this small industrial neighborhood on the north side of Hanover, Germany, momentarily awakens from its slumber.

As he does every week, Zarko Petrovic sounds the bell for worship at St. Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church. The now retired 74-year-old Serb has spent most of his adult life as a guest worker outside his native country. For 20 years, he worked on the line at a Michelin tire factory in France. He then moved to Germany, where he worked for 14 years as a bartender at Hanover’s InterContinental Hotel before retiring. Now a volunteer sacristan, Mr. Petrovic summons the community to prayer by tolling bells.

At the top of the hour, Father Milan Pejic enters the sanctuary. Since 1976, the 56-year- old priest has led the Hanover parish, which numbers some 2,500 people.

Only 30 worshipers made it on time this morning, but up to 200 people will be in the church by the liturgy’s end. At the right of the nave, a handful of sick and elderly parishioners are seated in places reserved for them. The rest of the congregation faces the iconostasis and stands for the next two hours: women to the left, men to the right. A gilded chandelier hangs above their heads, lighting the dark sanctuary. The perfumed scent of incense fills the air.

Accompanied by a 10-member choir, a sung dialogue unfolds between the pastor and his flock. Some faithful enunciate the prayers’ every word; others pray silently, contemplating the splendid icons on the iconostasis and church walls.

St. Sava’s parishioners hail from 20 different nations, including Ethiopia and other unlikely corners of the world. For this reason, Father Pejic varies to some extent the liturgy’s content and sequence, he says, “depending on who is present.”

Following tradition, Father Pejic celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic, but pauses at several points to repeat select passages first in Serbian, then German. Readings from the Gospel, on the other hand, are chanted in Serbian and then read aloud in German.

“Chanting twice would be inappropriate, but the contents can be received better by the listeners if it is read. This way, even the Serbian-speaking parishioners understand the biblical text better,” he says.

Father Pejic usually delivers his short sermon, generally based on the readings, at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

“Most parishioners are present then. It is quite normal for people here to arrive late.”

During occasional pauses in the liturgy, coins can be heard jingling as parishioners toss them into small donation baskets.

“Every newcomer donates several coins, kisses the icon of the Blessed Virgin and looks for a place among the worshipers,” continues Father Pejic, who at present is the parish’s only full-time staff member.

Latecomers need not worry about glances of disapproval, at least not from Father Pejic. “I am just as happy about the last worshiper as the first,” he says with a smile.

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Tags: Immigration Germany Assimilation Yugoslavia Orthodox Church of Serbia