The Serbian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Irinej makes a controversial visit to Syria and praises Bashar al Assad.
Speaking to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the state-backed outlet, the patriarch said that an Assad regime victory “represents the victory of right” in their war against the opposition.
The visit will be seen by many as whitewashing the crimes of the Assad regime by the most senior religious figure in the Serbian Orthodox Church, by making Assad appear a legitimate leader worthy of meeting.
Assad received Patriarch Irinej on Monday in the presence of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi, with both exchanging warm words of confidence in each other's belief of being able to promote “peace” and “love” in the region.
In an official statement on the Serbian Orthodox Church website, Patriarch Irinej “highly praised the principled and firm support” of the Assad regime in backing Serbia with regard to Kosovo.
Patriarch Irinej also mentioned that Serbia has experienced similar events to Syria’s, in particular when it comes to foreign interventions. In the 1990s, the Serbian state was engaged in a war of ethnic cleansing against Muslim Bosnians and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The international community belatedly intervened, but not before more than 100,000 people were killed in Bosnia and an estimated 9,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo. Serb forces also raped more than 20,000 women in Kosovo. Serbia has yet to acknowledge the horrors of its recent past.
The visit by Patriarch Irinej was also condemned by Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli.
#Assad received today Patriarch Irinej of the SOC. He leads the same SOC that had blessed war criminals during the 90’s & is keeping SRB society to live in a parallele🌎. He must visit Recak, Izbica & Krusa and meet survivors instead of visiting again a war criminal.Shame on him! pic.twitter.com/eHsbd7PdIW— Behgjet Pacolli (@pacollibehgjet) June 3, 2019
This is not the first time that the Serbian patriarch has sparked controversy. He has previously attempted to rename the Serb Orthodox Church to include Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia and declared independence in 2008.
This would be controversial in part because it would imply that Serbia still maintains a territorial claim over Kosovo even as it attempts to normalise relations.
The Serbian Orthodox Church was known to be close to Radovan Karadzic then under the leadership of Patriarch Pavle in the 1990s. Karadzic who was responsible for the Srebrenica genocide.
The church has struggled to come to terms with questions that it colluded and offered moral support to the Serb army in their wars in the Balkans and today fuels Serbian nationalism and notions of a Greater Serbia.