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Massive religious procession supports Serbia’s peaceful protests

January 27, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ More than 100,000 people today joined the biggest religious procession in Belgrade since World War II, an outpouring of national pride and sentiment symbolizing 10 weeks of peaceful protest against President Slobodan Milosevic.

The Serbian Orthodox church is closely linked to traditional Serb identity, and Monday’s procession was the biggest led by the church since Communist rule was imposed more than 50 years ago.

Although a religious celebration, it amounted to the latest protest against Milosevic’s government, which sparked protests by annulling opposition wins in local elections in November.

In contrast to the noisy pro-democracy demonstrations of students and opposition parties, the procession to mark the holiday of St. Sava, the founding father of the Serbian Orthodox church, wove silently through the heart of the capital.

The only sounds were the chanting of St. Sava’s liturgy by the dozens of Orthodox priests in flowing robes who headed the procession, and an occasional burst of applause for Patriarch Pavle, head of Serbia’s Orthodox Church.

Pavle, who supports the pro-democracy demonstrations, called today’s procession in part to see if he could pass through a police cordon that had blocked students from marching in the center of the capital.

Indeed, riot police withdrew at 4 a.m., leaving the way free for the students and, four hours later, for Pavle and the hordes who followed him.

Protests against Milosevic and his neo-Communist Socialists, who have ruled since Communist rule formally ended in 1990, started after authorities denied the opposition its local election victories in Belgrade and 13 other cities.

Demonstrations have spread to some 50 towns across Serbia, in the biggest challenge to Milosevic since he took power in 1987.

The opposition was to take power formally in Nis today, which would make them the first non-Communist authorities to rule Serbia’s second biggest city in more than 50 years. Milosevic has conceded five other towns to the opposition coalition Zajedno, or Together, but he refuses to give up Belgrade and seven more.

Many Serbs said they saw today’s religious procession as a means to express the unity of the nation. ``These are difficult times,″ said Mirjana Baltic, 61. ``And this is where we can find spiritual strength.″

``Whoever comes here will be wiser the next day,″ her husband, Stevan, added.

Violence broke out Sunday for the third straight night when demonstrators tried to enter the center of the capital to reach the students. Five protesters were slightly injured.

While daily Belgrade rallies have shrunk to 15,000 to 20,000 people, tens of thousands came out to support the students, the source of much of the wit and goodwill behind the largely peaceful uprising.

The protest has spread to different social groups, including even active and retired army officers, professors, judges, doctors, athletes, models and others. Many of them joined today’s procession.