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The Orthodox Church of Serbia

The origins of Christianity in Serbia are obscure; there is a tradition that Christianity on the Dalmatian coast can be traced back directly to the Apostle Paul. Latin missionaries were certainly active along the Dalmatian coast in the 7th century, and by the 9th century Byzantine missionaries were at work in Serbia, having been sent by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian. Eventually the Serbian people became entirely Christian.

Due in part to its geographical location, the Serbian church vacillated between Rome and Constantinople for a time, but finally gravitated towards the Byzantines. In 1219, St. Sava was consecrated the first Archbishop of a self-governing Serbian Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople, then residing at Nicaea during the Latin occupation of his city.

The Serbian kingdom reached its apogee during the reign of Stevan Dushan, who extended Serbian rule to Albania, Thessaly, Epirus, and Macedonia. Dushan was crowned Emperor of the Serbians and established a Serbian Patriarchate at Pec in 1346. This state of affairs was recognized by Constantinople in 1375.

The Serbians were defeated by the Turks in 1389, and subsequently they were gradually integrated into the Ottoman Empire. The Turks suppressed the Serbian Patriarchate in 1459, only to restore it in 1557. But it was suppressed again in 1766, when all the bishops in Serbia proper were replaced by Phanariot Greeks subject to the Patriarchate in Constantinople.

The emergence of an autonomous Serbian state in 1830 was coupled with the establishment of an autonomous Orthodox metropolia based at Belgrade and the replacement of Greek bishops by Serbs. In 1878 Serbia gained international recognition as an independent nation, and in 1879 the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the Serbian church as autocephalous. In 1918 the multinational state of Yugoslavia was formed, making possible the amalgamation of various Orthodox jurisdictions now within Yugoslavia (the formerly autonomous Serbian metropolias of Belgrade, Karlovci, Bosnia, Montenegro, and the diocese of Dalmatia) into a single Serbian Orthodox Church. In 1920 Constantinople recognized this union and raised the Serbian Church to the rank of Patriarchate.

The Serbian church suffered heavily during World War II, especially in regions under the control of the fascist Croatian state. Altogether it lost some 25% of its churches and monasteries and about one-fifth of its clergy. Following the establishment of a communist Yugoslav government in 1945, the Serbian church had to work out a new relationship with the officially atheist state. Much church property was confiscated, religious education was banned in the schools, and there was disagreement about the role of Serbia in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Tito’s break with the Soviet Union in 1948 and the development of better relations with the West led to greater tolerance of religion and an improved situation for the church. Nevertheless, subtle forms of persecution continued, with the government supporting a schism within the Serbian Orthodox Church [see the Macedonian Orthodox Church].



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