BELGRADE (Reuters) - Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, has died aged 90 after contracting COVID-19, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday.
Church bells tolled in Belgrade and many people flocked to the capital’s main St Sava cathedral to mark the death of Irinej, a conservative who wielded considerable political influence in Serbia and maintained close ties with Russia.
“This is hugely painful and sad for all of us,” said one mourner, Andreja Mladenovic, 45, after lighting a candle in front of a cathedral next to the Patriarchate building in Belgrade.
Irinej, who became patriarch a decade ago, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Nov. 4 and had been treated in a military hospital in Belgrade. He is the highest-ranking figure in the Eastern Orthodox Church to die from the coronavirus infection.
He had tested positive after attending the Nov. 1 funeral of Metropolitan Amfilohije, the Serbian Orthodox Church’s senior cleric in Montenegro, who also died from COVID-19.
“Patriarch Irinej was a great man of the Serbian church, Orthodox Christianity and our Serb nation,” President Vucic wrote in a letter to the Holy Synod, the Church’s top body.
The government declared three days of national mourning. The funeral will take place on Sunday.
In a letter of condolence, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Irinej’s “efforts aimed at promoting high spiritual values and strengthening the unity of the Orthodox world”.
Irinej had met Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, underscoring the close cultural and religious ties between the two Slavic countries. In 2019 Russian energy giant Gazprom Neft agreed to co-finance the completion of St Sava, one of the largest churches in the world.
Serbia, with a population of around seven million, has so far reported 110,351 COVID-19 infections, with 1,140 deaths.
The Serbian Orthodox Church has around 12 million followers, mainly in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, with dioceses in the United States, Australia and Western Europe.
Born Miroslav Gavrilovic in a village southwest of Belgrade, Irinej opposed the independence of Kosovo, Serbia’s former southern province predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians.
Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian Orthodox Christianity and it is home to some important monasteries.
Irinej publicly supported Vucic’s policies and awarded him the Order of Saint Sava, first grade, the Church’s highest decoration. Last year the patriarch criticised anti-government protests in Serbia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church also played a pivotal role in protests over a law on religion in neighbouring Montenegro which allowed the state to seize some religious property. After the protests, the opposition won a parliamentary election this year.
Irinej backed Serbia’s attempts to join the European Union, but opposed abortion and gay rights.
Bishops will elect a new patriarch in the coming months.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones
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