Serbia’s leading religious figure, Patriarch Irinej, has died after contracting coronavirus.
The 90-year-old head of the Serbian Orthodox Church had led a large public funeral in early November for the most senior cleric in neighbouring Montenegro who also died of Covid-19.
“I was honoured to know you. People like you never depart,” President Aleksandar Vucic said on Instagram.
Patriarch Irinej was a conservative who also wielded major political influence.
He was put on a ventilator in a military hospital after his condition deteriorated on Thursday, two weeks after he was first admitted to hospital. His death was announced on Friday.
The patriarch had criticised the Serbian government’s facilitation of gay pride events, condemning homosexuality as “a deviation of human nature”, BBC Balkans correspondent Guy Delauney reports. He was also bitterly opposed to Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
Patriarch Irinej was admitted to hospital on 4 November, three days after he officiated at the funeral of the Church’s most senior cleric in Montenegro, 82-year-old Metropolitan Bishop Amfilohije Radovic.
Thousands of mourners had gathered at the event without masks or maintaining social distancing. Many of those present kissed the bishop’s body as it lay in an open casket. Bishop Amfilohije had himself defied Covid regulations on public gatherings in Montenegro.
His public funeral went ahead amid a major spike in coronavirus cases in Montenegro and Serbia, and despite a warning from the authorities that the ceremony posed a risk to public health.
More than 104,000 people have tested positive and 1,110 have died in Serbia since the pandemic began.
Church figures in South-Eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic. Earlier this week, a funeral was held in Greece for a senior cleric who insisted on maintaining communion ceremonies, claiming there was no risk of infection.
The death of Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagadas, 62, came amid a spike in infection in Northern Greece.
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church has himself been admitted to hospital with mild coronavirus symptoms. Archbishop Ieronymos, 82, has publicly supported the Greek government’s lockdown measures.
However, the Church’s Holy Synod has rejected criticism of communion, which involves bread soaked in wine being handed out from the same chalice.