BELGRADE Serb police have banned a gay rights parade planned for Belgrade on Saturday and all other public gatherings this weekend, fearing attacks by rightist and ultra-nationalist groups.
Serbia outlawed the 2011 Belgrade Pride parade at the last moment, fearing a repetition of the previous year's violence when dozens were injured and arrested as protesters opposed to the parade clashed with police.
"The ban is imposed on the basis of security assessments," Milorad Veljovic, the director of police, said on Wednesday.
Conservative societies across the Balkans have been slow to accept greater gay rights, and similar events across the region have often ended in violence.
The three-month-old government, made up of nationalists and Socialists once led by late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, is under pressure to demonstrate its readiness to allow the parade and protect human rights to keep Serbia's bid to join the European Union on track.
Boban Stojanovic, a gay rights activist and one of the parade's organisers, said the ban "has shown that the state has once again backed down before hooligans and violence".
"Our problem is not that we will not march on October 6, but how we will cope with persistent persecution," Stojanovic said.
Swedish European Affairs Minister Birgitta Ohlsson said in a statement she had been due to give a keynote speech at the event and criticised the decision as "deeply troubling".
"The rights of minorities, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly should be guaranteed in countries that are members of the European Union or applying to join," she said.
Olhsson said she would still visit Belgrade on Friday and Saturday to meet gay rights activists and government officials.
Patriarch Irinej, head of the Orthodox Church, called the event a "parade of shame".
"It casts a heavy shadow on Belgrade, our centuries-old Christian culture and the dignity of the family as the foundation of the human kind."
Irinej said Prime Minister Ivica Dacic should also ban an exhibition by Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin that he said mocked Jesus as it showed him in women's clothes and high heels.
Almost 2,0000 police in riot gear, aided by mounted officers and anti-riot vehicles, deployed in Belgrade as the exhibition opened in an area packed with embassies, government buildings and businesses. The area was cordoned off and only invitees and journalists were allowed inside.
Outside, several dozen ultra-nationalists gathered to protest, shouting nationalist slogans and chanting hymns.
"We oppose having so many policemen securing this shameful and anti-Christian exhibition," said Bojan Obradovic, a member of Dveri, a small ultra-nationalist party.
The party said it would sue the organisers of the parade and the exhibition for inciting ethnic, racial and national hatred.
Serbia's Islamic Community also demanded a ban, saying: "This is neither art nor the freedom of speech. It is a conscious and clear insult of faith."
(Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic and)