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Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović and Charges of Anti-Semitism

Jovan Byford

Nikolaj Velimirović was born on 5 January 1881 (23 December 1880, Julian Calendar) in the village of Lelić, Serbia. Nikolaj was the first of nine children of a modest and devout peasant couple, Dragomir and Katarina Velimirović. In 1898, after excelling in his village school, Velimirović enrolled in the Orthodox Seminary in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

In 1905 he was awarded a scholarship at the University of Bern, Switzerland, where he completed a doctorate in theology in 1908. Velimirović was ordained a monk in December 1909 at Rakovica Monastery near Belgrade. Shortly after his ordination, Father Nikolaj traveled to Russia, visiting monasteries and other holy places and acquainting himself with Russian culture. There he was introduced to the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose philosophical writings made a lasting impression on his thinking.

In 1911, Velimirović returned to Serbia, where he took a position at the Orthodox Seminary in Belgrade. He regularly traveled the length and breadth of Serbia and Bosnia, preaching to an increasingly enthusiastic public. His sermons were devoted not just to religious matters, but they also advocated Serbia’s national and spiritual revival and the idea of unity among south Slavic nations.

With the coming of World War I, Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić sent Velimirović to England and the United States to promote the Serbian national cause. He was chosen to take part in this mission because of his erudition, his command of English, and his highly esteemed oratorical skills. Also, it was hoped that his reputation as an Anglophile, admirer of Protestantism, and believer in ecumenical dialogue would facilitate contacts with Anglican and Episcopal churches in Britain and the United States.

In the summer of 1915, Velimirović traveled to the United States, lecturing and preaching in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and elsewhere. He made a brief second visit to the United States in December 1917 before returning once again to London, where he remained until 1919. In addition to lecturing before university audiences in Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, Velimirović delivered sermons in Anglican churches across Great Britain.

In May 1919, following his return from England, Nikolaj Velimirović was ordained a bishop in the ancient diocese of Žiča. Less than 18 months later, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Dimitrije transferred Velimirović to Ohrid, where he remained until 1936. At this time he was reinstated as bishop of Žiča, a title which he retained until his death in 1956. His appointment in the spring of 1922 as the administrator of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America was a role which he performed simultaneously with his duties at Ohrid.

In the early 1920s, within a few years of his arrival at Ohrid, Velimirović, who had been known for his tidy hair, silk cassocks, and confidence that bordered on arrogance, became a recluse, ascetic, and conservative figure. By the mid-1920s, his admiration for Western Europe and his longstanding sympathy for the ecumenical movement all but disappeared. In some ways, Velimirović “gave up” on the West, which he believed had discarded God for the secular values of the French Revolution. He abandoned hope that a new Christian civilization could be built on the pan-humanist principles which had preoccupied him a decade earlier.

The first instance of anti-Semitism in Velimirović’s writings can be found in the sermon, “A Story about the Wolf and the Lamb,” which he delivered during a trip to the United States in the autumn of 1927. In treating the well-known Christian parable of the wolf and the lamb, Velimirović referred to “Jewish leaders in Jerusalem” at the time of the crucifixion as “wolves,” whose thirst for the blood of the Lamb of God was motivated by their “god-hating nationalism.” He explicitly stated that the murderous actions of Caiaphas were not attributable to “individual depravity,” but that, in plotting to kill Christ, he and other Jewish leaders “represented the Semitic race” and acted “in the interest of their nation.”1 This sermon provoked a bitter reaction from Belgrade Rabbi Dr. Isak Alkalaj, who saw in Velimirović’s words a reiteration of the medieval blood libel against the Jews and a potential incitement to violence against the followers of Mosaic faith in Serbia.2

A speech given by Velimirović in 1936 in the presence of Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Stojadinović gave a similar portrayal of Judaism as an inherently anti-Christian and dangerous creed. He explicitly warned that among the “dangers that loom over our internal and external lives” was “bloody Jewish Judaism, because Jews are working slyly and cleverly on the destruction of faith—faith in the real God.” In the bishop’s subsequent writings, Jews reappear, time and time again, as a devilish people who tried and murdered Christ, “inspired by the stinking breath of Satan.” In his most controversial work, Words to the Serbian People through the Dungeon Window, written in 1944, Velimirović wrote that Jews:

showed themselves to be worse enemies of God than the godless Pilate, because in the fury of their malice, they uttered those terrible words: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” The Devil taught them through the centuries how to fight against the sons of Christ. Europe knows nothing other than what Jews serve up as knowledge. It believes nothing other than what Jews order it to believe. It knows the value of nothing until Jews impose their own measure of values. All modern ideas including democracy, strikes, socialism, atheism, religious tolerance, pacifism, global revolution, capitalism, and Communism are the inventions of Jews, or rather their father, the Devil.3

Velimirović was arrested in July 1941 on suspicion of links with Serbian Chetnik insurgents who were fighting against German troops. However, he was promptly released on condition that he suspend his activities as the bishop of Žiča and remain under German surveillance at Ljubostinja Monastery.4 In December 1942, the Germans arrested Velimirović for a second time and transferred him to another monastery in Vojlovica near Belgrade. For 18 months he was kept there under house arrest, together with Serbian Patriarch Gavilo Dożić.

In September 1944, Velimirović and Dożić were transferred to Germany. They spent just over two months at the notorious concentration camp at Dachau, where they were held as “honorary prisoners” (Ehrenhafling). The reason behind Velimirović’s and Dożić’s release in November 1944 remains a matter of controversy.

After World War II, Velimirović’s detractors regularly raised three additional controversies: a medal which he received in 1934 from Hitler for his contribution to the restoration of a World War I German military cemetery in his diocese; an affirmative reference to the German Fuhrer in a 1935 speech; and his association with Dimitrije Ljotić, a Nazi collaborator and the leader of the Serbian fascist movement Zbor [Rally].

In 1946 Velimirović emigrated from Serbia to the United States, where he soon withdrew from public life and retreated to the Russian Orthodox St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. There he taught and lived a solitary existence until his death, 18 March 1956, at the age of 76. His remains were interred in the gardens of the Serbian Orthodox St. Sava Monastery, Libertyville, Illinois, a monastery which he helped to build in the 1920s. Before the funeral, Velimirović’s body was placed in Serbian Orthodox churches in New York, Chicago, and Lackawanna, New York, for the faithful to pay their respects. He was buried 27 March 1956, in the presence of 42 Serbian priests and prominent members of the Serbian diaspora. In May 1991, among considerable pomp and ceremony, Velimirović’s remains were returned to Serbia and laid to rest in a chapel in his native village of Lelić.

Today in Serbia Velimirović is widely regarded as the nation’s most respected religious figure since medieval Serbian St. Sava. Bishop Velimirović is also, without doubt, the best-selling Serbian author of the past two decades. In an open letter to a symposium on Velimirović held at Žiča Monastery in April 2003, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia and then President of Serbia and Montenegro, Vojislav Koštunica referred to Velimirović as “our guide…who is and forever will be among us.” The prime minister also cited the bishop’s “real patriotism” as a suitable blueprint for the emerging post-Milošević version of Serbian nationalism.5

The bishop’s popularity in Serbia reached its climax in May 2003, when the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church voted unanimously to canonize Velimirović. Icons with his image have become commonplace in Serbian churches, in the homes of the faithful, and even in taxis, where they are sometimes prominently displayed on the dashboard. The canonization has also sparked a noticeable merchandising industry. Key rings, postcards, credit-card size laminated icons, and other memorabilia can now be bought in Serbian church shops.

The Campaign for Canonization

The positive memory of Bishop Velimirović in Serbia today involves a continuous process of not remembering his association with Nazi collaborators, his anti-Semitism, and his positive evaluation of Hitler in a 1935 speech. Furthermore, justifications, trivializations, and denials of anti-Semitism have been woven into the routine of remembrance and entrenched in commemorative speeches, books, articles, sermons, and everyday talk devoted to Nikolaj Velimirović, Serbia’s new saint and the country’s most popular religious author and spiritual authority.

The campaign for canonization of Velimirović began in the 1980s, building on a cult following that dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. As early as 1945, 11 years before his death, an icon bearing his image was painted on the walls of a church in the village of Rataje, near the town of Aleksandrovac.6 As early as the 1970s, Velimirović was regarded as a saint among the Serbian diaspora in the United States. Apparently, monks at the Russian St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, where he died, remembered and venerated him as “St. Nikolaj of South Canaan.” The bishop’s veneration in the United States was not limited to a single monastery. In the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in Parma, Ohio, a fresco bearing the title, “Synaxis of the Saints of North America,” includes Velimirović depicted as “St. Nicholas of South Canaan.”

In Serbia, the bishop’s rehabilitation over the past two decades has included the transformation of his image from “traitor,” a term frequently used by Communist authorities, to “saint.” In the late 1980s, nationalism gradually began to replace Communism as the dominant Serbian ideology. Simultaneously, supporters of Velimirović, previously marginalized in the Serbian Orthodox Church, became a prominent force within the ecclesiastical establishment, and initiated the rehabilitation of his public memory.F

Notes:

1 Nikolaj Velimirović, “Priča o vuku i jagnjetu [A Story about the Wolf and the Lamb],” Pregled crkve eparhije žičke (No. 1, 1928), 6-9.

2 Isak Alakaj, “Priča o vuku i jagnjetu [A Story about the Wolf and the Lamb],” Vreme (15 January 1928), 3.

3 Nikolaj Velimirović, Poruka Srpskom Narodu Kroz Tamnički Prozor [Words to the Serbian People through the Dungeon Window] (Belgrade: Svetosavska Književna Zadruga, 1985), 193-94.

4 P. Ilič, Moji doživljaji sa dr Nikolaj Velimirovićem i dr Vojom Janićem [My Experiences with Dr. Nikolaj Velimirović and Dr. Voja Janić] (Belgrade: n.p., 1938).

5 A. Jevtić, Sveti Vladika Nikolaj Ohridski i Zički [Holy Bishop Nikolaj of Ohrid and Ziča] (Kraljevo: Sveti Manastir Ziča, 2003), 321-22.

6 Ibid.

The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Jovan Byford, Denial and Repression of Antisemitism; Post-Communist Remembrance of the Serbian Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008).

Jovan Byford is a lecturer in psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom