BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ After decades of following Communist rulers, leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church have broken their alliance with President Slobodan Milosevic, shaking his rule and boosting their own standing with believers.

``Milosevic must go if Serbia wants to live,'' Father Sava, a priest in Belgrade's Bezaniska Church, said Monday, the eve of Tuesday's Orthodox Christmas. Worshipers in the church held candles and prayed to a choir's velvet sound.

Yugoslavia's Orthodox churches have joined the chorus of protesters who have rallied against Milosevic since he annulled Nov. 17 local elections won by the opposition.

In their strongest attack ever, Serbian Orthodox Church leaders assailed Milosevic last week for ``crushing the will of the people'' and fomenting civil strife.

``He has already placed us against the whole world, and now he wants to set us against each other and trigger bloodshed just to preserve power,'' the leaders said in a statement.

Sava said he once believed that Milosevic was the only one who could ``save Serbia from evil powers.''

``Even though he is a Communist, I trusted him like he was my brother. I thought he was Serbia's savior against Western influence, Croats and all others,'' Sava said. ``But now I see that whatever he touched, he destroyed. Like Satan.''

The church's alliance with Serbian Communists followed World War II, when some priests openly sided with Communist partisans even as churches were shut down and clergymen were ousted.

Under Communist rule, Serbia officially was atheist and churchgoers could risk being fired from their jobs or even arrested.

As a matter of survival, church leaders fell in line behind their Communist leaders. They earned the tacit support of former Yugoslav Communist strongman Josip Broz Tito.

Tolerance of religion increased in the 1980s when Milosevic switched to nationalism to retain power while communism crumbled elsewhere.

Church leaders backed Milosevic when he instigated wars in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia: Some priests even rode atop Serbian tanks as they rolled into Croatia.

They supported Bosnian Serb leaders, including war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic. Today, a large poster of Karadzic still decorates a side entrance of the Belgrade office of the church's leader, Patriarch Pavle.

``The church has always been nationalist in Serbia, as in most other Balkan states,'' said Zorana Vlajkovic, of Belgrade's Institute of Sociology. ``It didn't care too much about other nations, human and democratic rights _ not to speak of elections. Now, something seems to be changing.''

Following the Bosnian war, Orthodox clergy split over what degree of nationalism they wished to follow and Pavle struggled to find a balance between the two factions.

Last week's statement indicated the faction supporting modern democratic reforms _ and a more benign interpretation of national interests _ had won.

It was a victory cheered by Serbian faithful _ about 40 percent of the population _ as well as by opposition protesters. Along with signs of discontent in Yugoslavia's army, the statement indicated that some of Milosevic's traditional pillars of support may be crumbling.

``There is no hope for Milosevic if he doesn't take our statement seriously,'' said Metropolitan Amfilohije, head of the church in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

Opposition leader Zoran Djindjic said: ``The Serbian Orthodox Church has often been with the Serbian rulers. But when they split, the rulers were the ones who went down, and not the church.''

Worshipers at Christmas Eve services expressed relief that the church finally decided to take on Milosevic.

``This is the first time in years that I went to church for Christmas Eve,'' said Momcilo Lukic, 45, holding the hand of his 4-year-old daughter Maja. ``I was so disappointed with their leaders that I boycotted Mass. Now, I even took my family along.''