Serbia: Orthodox church shocked by corruption claims

Belgrade, 5 March (AKI) – The Serbian Orthodox Church has been shocked by a corruption scandal which has led to the suspension of Kosovo bishop Artemije. But analysts said on Friday it also revealed political pressure and deep divisions in the church's leadership.

The Church's Holy Synod formed a five-man commission in February to check the financial operations of Artemije's diocese in Kosovo, after claims of fraud and financial mismanagement.

The investigation turned violent when a fight broke out between monks supporting Artemije and those opposing him.

The investigation discovered many alleged irregularities, misappropriation of church funds and humanitarian aid, and Artemije’s secretary Simeon Vilovski fled to Greece.

Serbian police arrested Predrag Suboticki, who operated a church-linked construction firm, which was engaged in the reconstruction of monasteries destroyed in ethnic Albanian unrest in March 2004.

The investigation showed that Vilovski and Suboticki were buying apartments in Belgrade and property in Greece with church funds.

Serbian police minister Ivica Dacic said that at least 350,000 euros were handed out in cash from church funds to pay fictional construction bills.

The Holy Synod convened on 13 February, temporarily suspended Artemije from managing the Rasko-Prizrenska diocese in Kosovo, and appointed an official administrator.

Hundreds of monks and Kosovo Serbs demonstrated in Belgrade, protesting against what they called “political persecution” of bishop Artemije.

He is still a member of the Holy Sabor of Bishops (church parliament) and his fate will be decided at the Sabor convention in May.

But the scandal has seriously tarnished the image of the church, which has been the most trusted institution of some ten million Serbs around the world.

It also exposed a struggle between pro-western reformists and conservative opponents of ecumenism among the church leadership.

Artemije, 75, boycotted a visit by US vice-president Joseph Biden to Kosovo last year, saying he was the main architect of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, which pushed Serbian forces out of Kosovo, paving the way for independence.

Reformist bishop Irinej has denied the Holy Synod acted under political pressure in suspending Artemije.

“With an absolutely clear conscience, I can say that there was no political dimension to it,” Irinej told Belgrade TV.

But conservative bishop Filaret told Adnkronos International (AKI) “the great magician”, meaning president Tadic, did intervene.

“He had sent emissaries to each and every one of us, suggesting we should replace Artemije, because he was harmful to his foreign policy,” Filaret said.

He claimed Tadic was looking for an exit strategy to implicitly recognise Kosovo as a precondition for Serbia’s joining the European Union, saying Artemije was a “thorn in Tadic’s eye”.

Asked about corruption charges, Filaret said it was for judicial bodies to decide.

He said many bishops had accumulated wealth and didn’t live up to Christian ethics. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," he said quoting the Bible.

“But why only Artemije, and why at this unfortunate moment?” he asked.

A prominent Belgrade church analyst, Zivica Tucic, said there were “both elements, of corruption and politics” in Artemije’s case.

He pointed out, however, that the Holy Synod didn’t blame Artemije directly for the fraud, but for not controlling his closest associates.

“Artemije has been a problem for some time,” Tucic told AKI.

“His rigidity certainly hasn’t helped the ecumenical image of the church promoted by newly enthroned patriarch Irinej, or Tadic’s efforts to present a new ‘peaceful face’ of Serbia to the world,” Tucic said.

Meanwhile, Artemije has withdrawn from the public eye, saying he would do nothing that may hurt church unity.



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