A senior bishop in Serbia has been condemned for encouraging armed attacks against an LGBTQ+ Pride event in Belgrade.
In September, the Serbian capital will host EuroPride, which celebrates LGBTQ+ rights across the continent, in a first for a southeastern European country.
But Serbian Orthodox Church bishop Nikanor Bogunović of Banat, a region that covers parts of Serbia, Romania and Hungary, has vowed to “curse” all those who attend the week-long festival.
“I will curse all those who organize and participate in something like that,” Nikanor said in remarks made on 11 August, according to Balkan Insight.
“I can do that much. If I had a weapon, I would use it, I would use that force if only I had it, but I do not.”
He added that EuroPride participants “will come to Belgrade and flaunt and desecrate the city of Belgrade, the holy Serbian city,” and that “we raise our voice against such [people]”.
Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić said Nicanor’s sermon had another clear target – the country’s lesbian prime minister, Ana Brnabić, elected in 2017.
“Bishop Nicanor insulted himself and our church, humiliated our church, much more than Ana Brnabić or anyone else ever did,” he told TV network Prva TV on 12 August.
Only three days after Nikanor’s comments, chants of “Hands off our children” and “Stop the parade of shame” boomed through the streets of Belgrade as part of a protest against EuroPride.
Tens of thousands of people gathered outside Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarchate offices before ending at the Sain Marko Church. The demonstration was backed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, according to local media reports.
Serbia, a deeply conservative country in the Balkans, has a spotty track record with LGBTQ+ rights at best. Something seemingly at odds with it being one of the few nations to have an openly gay leader.
Queer Serbs do enjoy some protections in the eyes of the law, but same-gender couples are not legally recognised and marriage equality remains firmly banned by the constitution.
Though the days when nearly half of Serbs considered being gay an illness are long gone, officials remain sluggish to tackle homophobia while religious leaders consider LGBTQ+ rights a degenerate Western plot.
The knock-on effect of this is easy to see. Almost 60 per cent of LGBTQ+ Serbs have reported physical or emotional abuse in the course of a year, according to a 2020 report by the human rights group Center for Research and Development of Society IDEAS.
So for a high-ranking religious figure like Nikanor to call congregants for arms wasn’t exactly unexpected to some activists.
“It’s deeply disturbing to see a bishop incite armed violence against the LGBTQ+ community, however, it’s not surprising,” Nik Jovčić-Sas, a British-Serbian LGBTQ+ activist, told PinkNews.
“The Serbian Orthodox Church’s response to the queer and trans community for the past 20 years has been one of implicit and explicit violence.”
Jovčić-Sas said the first Belgrade Pride ever held in 2001 has come to be known as “Крви Прајд, ‘the bloody Pride’, for its extreme violence”.
Football hooligans joined right-wing nationalists to beat up and stone Pride-goers wishing to celebrate who they are. The violence only ended when police fired in the air to disperse the seething crowds.
The haunting scene was repeated nearly a decade later in 2010 when the second Belgrade Pride was held. Thugs tore through the march, lobbing Molotov cocktails, bricks, stones, glass bottles and firecrackers at Pride-goers and police in a protest egged on by religious leaders.
More than 100 people were arrested after the office of the ruling Democratic Party was set on fire and at least one shot was fired in clashes with the police.
“The church has always allowed itself to be the heart of the country’s most virulent anti-queer campaigns,” Jovčić-Sas added.
Patriarch Porfirije offered LGBTQ+ Serbs hope for a more inclusive and tolerant Serbian Orthodox Church when he expressed sympathy for queer couples fighting for legal recognition.
“However considering that he has not condemned Bishop Nikanor for his comments and allowed the church to be the rallying point for this weekend’s anti-Pride march,” Jovčić-Sas said, “I am not optimistic we will see any change from this Patriarch.”