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Serbian Orthodox Church

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Patriarchate of Peć (Serbia)
Coats of arms of the Serbian Orthodox Church
Founder Apostle Andrew
St. Sava I
Independence 1219-1532, 1557-1766, since 1920
Recognition 1219 by Constantinople
Primate Metropolitan Amfilohije (Acting)
Headquarters Belgrade, Serbia
Territory {{{territory}}}
Possessions {{{possessions}}}
Language Church Slavonic and Serbian
Adherents 7-11 million[1][2]

The Serbian Orthodox Church (Serbian: Српска Православна Црква / Srpska Pravoslavna Crkva; СПЦ / SPC) or the Church of Serbia is one of the autocephalous Orthodox Christian churches, ranking sixth in order of seniority after Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Russia. It is the second oldest Slavic Orthodox Church in the world (after the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), as well as the westernmost Eastern church in Europe.[3] It exercises jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in Serbia and surrounding Slavic and other lands, as well as exarchates and patriarchal representation churches around the world. The Patriarch of Serbia serves as first among equals in his church; currently, there is no patriarch since the death of Patriarch Pavle on 15 November 2009.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous, or ecclesiastically independent, member of the Orthodox communion, located primarily in Serbia (including Kosovo), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Republic of Macedonia[4], as well as Croatia. Since many Serbs have emigrated to foreign countries, there are now Serbian Orthodox communities worldwide.

The Serbian Orthodox Church claims to own many significant Christian relics, such as the right hand of John the Baptist, Saint George's hand and skull parts[5], Holy Cross segments, St. Paraskevi's finger, body of St. Vasilije of Ostrog, etc.


Middle ages

The Serbs were converted to Christianity not long after their arrival in the Balkans, before the Great Schism split the Christian Church into rival Latin-speaking (Roman Catholic) and Greek-speaking (Eastern Orthodox) Churches. During the early Middle Ages, the religious allegiance of the Serbs was divided between the two churches.

The various Serbian principalities were united ecclesiastically in the early 13th century by Saint Sava, the son of the Serbian ruler and founder of the Serbian medieval state Stefan Nemanja and brother of Stefan Prvovenčani, the first Serbian king. Sava persuaded the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to establish the Church in Serbia as an autocephalous body, with Sava himself as its archbishop, consecrated in 1219. This sealed Orthodox Christian supremacy in the Serbian realm, which was up until then divided between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

The status of the Serbian Orthodox Church grew along with the growth in size and prestige of the medieval Kingdom of Serbia. After King Stefan Dušan assumed the imperial title of tsar, the Archbishopric of Peć was correspondingly raised to the rank of Patriarchate in 1346. In the century that followed, the Serbian Church achieved its greatest power and prestige.

From 16th to 19th century

In 1459, the Ottoman Empire conquered Serbia and made much of the former kingdom a pashaluk. Although some Serbs converted to Islam, most continued their adherence to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Church itself continued in existence throughout the Ottoman period, though not without some disruption. After the death of Patriarch Arsenios II in 1463, a successor was not elected. The Patriarchate was thus de facto abolished, and the Serbian Church passed under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Serbian Patriarchate was restored in 1557 by the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, much thanks to the famous Mehmed-paša Sokolović, when Macarios, his brother or cousin, was elected Patriarch in Peć.

The restoration of the Patriarchate was of great importance for the Serbs because it helped the spiritual unification of all Serbs in the Turkish Empire. After consequent Serbian uprisings against the Turkish occupiers in which the Church had a leading role, the Turks abolished the Patriarchate once again in 1766. The Church remained once more under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This period of so-called "Phanariots" was a period of great spiritual decline because the Greek bishops had very little understanding of their Serbian flock.

During this period, many Christians across the Balkans converted to Islam to avoid severe taxes imposed by the Turks in retaliation for uprisings and continued resistance. Many Serbs migrated with their hierarchs to Habsburg Monarchy where they had been granted autonomy. The seat of the archbishops was moved from Peć to Karlovci. The new Serbian Metropolitanate of Karlovci would become a patriarchate in 1848.

Modern history

The church's close association with Serbian resistance to Ottoman rule led to Serbian Orthodoxy becoming inextricably linked with Serbian national identity and the new Serbian monarchy that emerged from 1817 onwards. The Serbian Orthodox Church in Serbia finally regained its independence and became autocephalous in 1879, the year after the recognition by the Great Powers of Serbia as an independent state. This church was known as the Metropolitanate of Belgrade, thus in the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, two separate Serbian Churches existed - the Patriarchate of Karlovci in the Habsburg Monarchy and the Metropolitanate of Belgrade in the Kingdom of Serbia. The Cetinje Metropolitanate held successorship to the Serb Patriarchate in Peć, its Vladikas were titled "Exarchs of the Peć Throne"

After World War I all the Orthodox Serbs were united under one ecclesiastical authority, and two Serbian churches were united into the single Patriarchate of Serbia in 1920 with the election of Patriarch Dimitrije. It gained great political and social influence in the inter-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, during which time it successfully campaigned against the Yugoslav government's intentions of signing a concordat with the Holy See.

During the Second World War the Serbian Orthodox Church suffered severely from persecutions by the occupying powers and the rabidly anti-Serbian Ustaše regime of Independent State of Croatia, which sought to create a "Croatian Orthodox Church" which Orthodox Serbs were forced to join. Many Serbs were killed during the war; bishops and priests of the Serbian Orthodox Church were singled out for persecution, and many Orthodox churches were damaged or destroyed.

After the war the Church was suppressed by the Socialist government of Josip Broz Tito, which viewed it with suspicion due to the Church's links with the exiled Serbian monarchy and the nationalist Chetnik movement. Along with other ecclesiastical institutions of all denominations, the Church was subject to strict controls by the Yugoslav state, which prohibited the teaching of religion in schools, confiscated Church property and discouraged religious activity among the population.

The gradual demise of Yugoslav socialism and the rise of rival nationalist movements during the 1980s also led to a marked religious revival throughout Yugoslavia, not least in Serbia. The Serbian Patriarch, Pavle, supported the opposition to Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church was created in 1967, effectively as an offshoot of the Serbian Orthodox Church in what was then the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, as part of the Yugoslav drive to build up a Macedonian national identity. This was strongly resisted by the Serbian Church, which does not recognize the independence of its Macedonian counterpart. Campaigns for an independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church have also gained ground in recent years.

The Yugoslav wars gravely impacted several branches of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Many Serbian Orthodox Church clergy supported the war, while others were against it.

Many churches in Croatia were damaged or destroyed since the beginning of the war in that country in 1991. The bishops and priests and most faithful of the eparchies of Zagreb, of Karlovac, of Slavonia and of Dalmatia became refugees. The latter three were almost completely abandoned after the exodus of the Serbs from Croatia in 1995. The eparchy of Dalmatia also had its see temporarily moved to Knin after the Republic of Serbian Krajina was established. The eparchy of Slavonia had its see moved from Pakrac to Daruvar. After Operation Storm, two monasteries were particularly damaged:

The eparchies of Bihać and Petrovac, Dabar-Bosnia and Zvornik and Tuzla were also dislocated due to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The eparchy see of Dabar-Bosnia was temporarily moved to Sokolac, and the see of Zvornik-Tuzla to Bijeljina. Over a hundred Church-owned objects in the Zvornik-Tuzla eparchy were destroyed or damaged during the war. Many monasteries and churches in the Zahumlje eparchy were also destroyed. Numerous faithful from these eparchies also became refugees.

By 1998 the situation had stabilized in both countries. Most of the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church was returned to normal use, the bishops and priests returned, and that which was destroyed, damaged or vandalized was restored. The process of rebuilding several churches is still under way, notably the cathedral of the Eparchy of Upper Karlovac in Karlovac. The return of the SOC faithful also started, but they are not nearly close to their pre-war numbers, as of 2004.

Significance of Kosovo to Serbia

Eparchy of Ras and Prizren, which includes whole of Kosovo

Due to the Kosovo War, after 1999 numerous Serbian Orthodox holy sites in the province were left occupied only by clergy. Since the arrival of NATO troops in June 1999, 156 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries have been damaged or destroyed and several priests have been killed. During the few days of the 2004 unrest in Kosovo, 35 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged and some destroyed by Albanian mobs. Thousands of Serbs were forced to move from Kosovo due to the numerous attacks of Kosovo Albanians on Serbian churches and Serbs.

As a reaction to the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence, the Serbian government Minister of Religion Radomir Naumov (DSS) decided to pay the salaries to Serbian Orthodox clergy in Kosovo.[6]


Site estimates the number of believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church to be between 6,500,000 and 7,500,000[1], while other estimates go up to 11,000,000[2]. Orthodoxy is the largest single religious faith in Serbia with 6,371,584 adherents (84% of the population belonging to it)[7], and in Montenegro with 460,383 (74%)[8]. It is the second largest faith in Bosnia and Herzegovina with 36% of adherents[9], and in Croatia with 4.4% of adherents [10]


The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church is the patriarch. He is also the head (metropolitan) of the Metropolitanate of Belgrade and Karlovci. Currently, there is no patriarch since the death of Patriarch Pavle on 15 November 2009. The full title of the patriarch is His Holiness the Archbishop of Peć, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovci, Serbian Patriarch.

The highest body of the Church is the Holy assembly of Bishops (Serbian: Sveti arhijerejski sabor, Свети архијерејски сабор). It is consisted of the Patriarch, the Metropolitans, Bishops, Archbishop of Ohrid and Vicar Bishops. It meets twice a year in spring and in autumn. Holy assembly of Bishops makes important decisions for the church's life and elects the patriarch.

The executive body of the Serbian Orthodox Church is the Holy Synod. It has five members: four bishops and the patriarch[11]. Holy Synod takes care of the everyday life of the Church. It meets on regular basis.

The territory of the Serbian Orthodox Church is divided into:

Dioceses are further divided into episcopal deaneries, each consisting of several church congregations and/or parishes. Church congregations consist of one or more parishes. A parish is the smallest Church unit - a communion of Orthodox faithful congregating at the Holy Eucharist with the parish priest at their head.

Holy assembly of Bishops

Metropolitans [12]

Eparchies of the Serbian Orthodox Church in former Yugoslavia

Bishops [12]
Vicar bishops

Vicar bishop (or titular bishop) is a bishop who is not in charge of a diocese. Vicar bishop bears in his title the name of a town or region that is within a diocese. He has no independent jurisdiction (even in his titular town), but is subordinate to his diocesan bishop. Only large dioceses have vicar bishops. There are six vicar bishops:

Autonomous Archbishopric of Ohrid

The Autonomous Archbishopric of Ohrid or Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric is an autonomous archbishopric in the Republic of Macedonia under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It was formed in 2002 in opposition to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which had had a similar relationship with the Serbian Orthodox Church prior to 1967, when it unilaterally declared itself autocephalous. Bishops from this archbishopric are:

Worship, liturgy and doctrine

Services cannot properly be conducted by a single person, but must have at least one other person present. Usually, all of the services are conducted on a daily basis only in monasteries and cathedrals, while parish churches might only do the services on the weekend and major feast days. The Divine Liturgy is the celebration of the Eucharist. The Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays during the preparatory season of Great Lent. Reserve communion is prepared on Sundays and is distributed during the week at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Services, especially the Divine Liturgy, can only be performed once a day on a single altar.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is characterized by monotheistic Trinitarianism, a belief in the Incarnation of the Logos (Son of God), a balancing of cataphatic theology with apophatic theology, a hermeneutic defined by Sacred Tradition, a concrete ecclesiology, a robust theology of the person, and a therapeutic soteriology.

Ecumenical relations

The Serbian Orthodox Church is in full communion with 14 other autocephalous (that is, administratively completely independent) local Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Art and architecture

Church architecture

Services are conducted in church buildings and involve both the clergy and faithful. The original style of Serbian Orthodox Church was the church built out of wood. These churches were typically found in poorer villages where it was too expensive to build a church out of stone.

Serbo-Byzantine Style

This is the typical style of churches built. This style of church architecture was developed in the late 13th century combining Byzantine and Raskan influences to form a new church style. By the end of 13th and in the first half of 14th century the Serbian state enlarged over Macedonia, Epirus and Thessaly up to the Aegean Sea. On these new territories Serbian art was even more influenced by the Byzantine art tradition.

Gračanica, which was entirely rebuilt by King Milutin in 1321, is the most beautiful monument of Serbian architecture from the 14th century. The church of this monastery is an example of a construction that achieved the highest degree of architecture not only in the Byzantine form but in the creation of an original and freestyle exceeding its models. The wall creation in steps is one of the basic characteristics of this temple. The Kings's Church in Studenica, characterized as an ideal church, was built in the first decades of the 14th century.

By the end of the third decade of the 14th century the Pec Patriarchate had finally been shaped. The exterior of the Patriarchate is a vision of shapes characteristic of contemporary Serbian architecture. On the major part of the outer walls paint decoration was used instead of stone relief and brick and stone decoration. A typical Serbo-Byzantine church has a rectangular foundation, with a major dome in the center with smaller domes around the center one. The inside of the church is covered with frescos that illustrate various biblical stories and portrays Serbian saints.

Western Influences

During the 17th Century many of the Serbian Orthodox Churches that were built in Belgrade took all the characteristics of baroque churches built in the Austrian occupied regions where Serbs lived. The churches usually had a bell tower, and a single nave building with the iconostasis inside the church covered with Renaissance-style paintings.

These churches can be found in Belgrade and the northern half of Serbia, which were occupied by the Austrian Empire from 1717 to 1739, and on the border with Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian empire) across the Sava and Danube rivers from 1804 when Serbian statehood was re-established.


Icons are replete with symbolism meant to convey far more meaning than simply the identity of the person depicted, and it is for this reason that Orthodox iconography has become an exacting science of copying older icons rather than an opportunity for artistic expression. The Orthodox believe that the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary were painted by Luke the Evangelist. Orthodox regard their depiction of Christ as accurate, with Christ having brown semi-curly hair, brown eyes, and Semitic features (the Virgin Mary being similar). The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon painting also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. More recently there has been a strong trend of returning to the more traditional and symbolic representations.
Radoslav gospel - Saint John (fragment)

"A Portrait of the Evangelist", a miniature from the Radoslav Gospel (1429).

Icons are not considered by the Orthodox to be "graven images" or idols, but prohibitions against three-dimensional statuary are still in place, though before the crisis of Iconoclasm there was an Eastern Christian tradition of statuary, though not as major as in the West. Biblical prohibitions against material depictions have been altered by Christ (as God) taking on material form. Also, it is not the wood or paint that are venerated, but rather God is through the individual (or event) portrayed.

Large icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and often cover the inside structure completely. Orthodox homes often likewise have icons hanging on the wall, usually together on an eastern facing wall, and in a central location where the family can pray together.

Icons are often illuminated with a candle or oil lamp. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn cleanly.) Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolize the Light of the World which is Christ.

Tales of miraculous icons that moved, spoke, cried, bled, or gushed fragrant myrrh are not uncommon, though it has always been considered that the message of such an event was for the immediate faithful involved and therefore does not usually attract crowds. Some miraculous icons whose reputations span long periods of time nevertheless become objects of pilgrimage along with the places where they are kept.

See also



Further reading

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