The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, has died after testing positive for the coronavirus, the church announced on Friday. He was 90.
A brief church statement said that the patriarch died shortly after 7 a.m. in a Belgrade military hospital.
Church bells throughout Serbia tolled and mourners flocked to light candles as the government proclaimed three days of national mourning.
The patriarch was hospitalized with the virus early in November, soon after attending the funeral of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Bishop Amfilohije, who also died from complications caused by the COVID-19 infection.
Thousands of mourners, most of them without masks, gathered at the funeral in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, on November 1, in violation of coronavirus-fighting measures proclaimed by the small Adriatic state’s authorities.
The burial turned out to be a major coronavirus-spreading event, according to the country’s health officials, with several high ranking church officials and others who were present later testing positive.
The church said Irinej will be buried in the main Saint Sava Church in Belgrade on Sunday.
Since Amfilohije’s death, and the hospitalization of the patriarch, Serbian priests have started to appeal for their parishioners to take the deadly virus seriously. They had previously downplayed the threat from the global pandemic and largely ignored bans on large gatherings and preventive measures during prayers and other church services.
Like the rest of the Balkans, both Serbia and Montenegro are seeing daily record numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, and hospitals are running out of beds.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also attended the burial in Montenegro. Following the news of Irinej’s death, Vucic posted on Instagram Friday: “It was an honor to have known you,” alongside a black and white photo of the patriarch. “People like you are never gone.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message of condolence to Vucic, praising the late patriarch for “strengthening the unity of the whole Orthodox world,” according to Serbia’s state TV.
Irinej, who wielded considerable political influence in Serbia, took over the church’s helm in January 2010 after the death of his predecessor, Patriarch Pavle, who was a highly popular and respected church leader in the Balkan country.
Throughout his church reign, he maintained the hardline, anti-Western nationalist stance, criticizing the country’s advances to the West and urging instead, closer relations with Russia.
This was reflected in his relationships with other Orthodox Christian Churches, maintaining closer relations with Russia and other Slavic allies and alienating himself and the Serbian Church from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In 2018, Irinej sent a strongly worded protest letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew over the latter’s decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church.
The Serbian church is one of a group of autocephalous, or independent, churches that make up the Orthodox Christian faith. The Roman Catholic Church split from the Orthodox east in the 11th century in an event called the Great Schism.
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