Hundreds of people have gathered for the funeral of Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church who died at the age of 90 after contracting COVID-19.
The ceremony took place on Sunday at the church of Saint Sava in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Due to coronavirus-related restrictions, most mourners watched the rituals on a screen outside the church, while Irinej’s relatives, clergy and dignitaries, including President Aleksandar Vucic and Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s Presidency, were allowed inside.
Most members of the clergy performing funeral rites in the church were without masks, as well as some people outside. However, many of the faithful who gathered outside wore masks and tried to maintain a distance from each other.
After the liturgy and the sermon, six members of the Serbian Army Guard dressed in the traditional blue uniform carried the coffin to the church’s crypt, where Irinej was buried. He is the first patriarch to be buried there.
The patriarch was hospitalised with the virus early in November, days 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.
It is not known if Irinej contracted the virus there, but at that funeral, he was indoors for hours among crowds, most of whom did not wear masks.
His condition quickly deteriorated due to advancing age and chronic heart issues. He died on Friday.
Like other European countries, Serbia has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. Its government on Saturday tightened coronavirus restrictions, such as limiting gatherings to five people, starting from next week.
Authorities have been reluctant, however, to apply strict restrictions on the powerful church, which has about 12 million followers, mainly in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
Serbia, which has a population of about seven million, has so far reported 116,125 COVID-19 cases and 1,168 deaths.
Irinej took over the influential church’s helm in January 2010 after the death of his predecessor, Patriarch Pavle.
At the time, Irinej was seen as a relatively moderate and a compromise choice among factions within the church.
But throughout his reign, he maintained the hardline nationalist stance the church developed during the wars that cleaved the Balkans in the 1990s. They included beliefs that the Serbs were historic victims of injustice and played on what were believed to be anti-Serb policies of rival Balkan nations as well as the international community.
He has often criticised Western policies towards Serbia over its breakaway Kosovo province, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008, and kept close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and Vucic.
Irinej was among the rare Serbian church dignitaries who openly called for improved ties with the Roman Catholic Church. He said the two churches should overcome historic differences.
“An era has ended,” Vucic said in his funeral address. “His greatest concern was Kosovo … He acted rationally and with a cool head,” he added.
The caretaker of the church will be Bosnian Bishop Hrizostom, and the new patriarch due to be named in next three months following elections.
The Serbian church is one of a group of autocephalous, or independent, churches that make up the Orthodox Christian faith. The Orthodox Churches split from the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century in an event called the Great Schism.