BELGRADE (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners, including country's president, gathered on Sunday for the funeral of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who died aged 90 after contracting COVID-19.
Authorities hoped to avoid Patriarch Irinej's funeral becoming a place where coronavirus might spread.
Only Irinej's relatives, clergy and dignitaries, including President Aleksandar Vucic and Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's Presidency, were allowed inside the St. Sava church. Other mourners watched funeral rites on big screens outside.
Most members of the clergy performing funeral rites in the church were without masks, as well as some people outside. However, many of faithful who gathered outside wore masks and tried to maintain a distance from each other.
Irinej tested positive for coronavirus on Nov. 4 and died on Friday.
He had attended the Nov. 1 funeral of Metropolitan Amfilohije, the Serbian Orthodox Church's senior cleric in Montenegro, who also died from COVID-19. It is not known if Irinej contracted the virus there, but at that funeral he was indoors for hours among crowds, most of whom did not wear masks.
Like other European countries, Serbia has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. Its government on Saturday tightened coronavirus restrictions, such as limiting gatherings to five people, starting next week.
Authorities have been reluctant, however, to apply strict restrictions on the powerful Church, which has about 12 million followers, mainly in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
Serbia, which has a population of around seven million, has so far reported 116,125 COVID-19 cases and 1,168 deaths.
In a eulogy, Vucic said Irinej had been concerned for Serbia not to recognise the independence of Kosovo.
"He acted rationally and with a cool head, seeking ways for us ... not to recognise the independence of Kosovo ... while at the same time understanding reality and all historical mistakes we made," he said.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is firmly opposed to the independence of Kosovo, which is Serbia's former southern province and is predominantly populated by Albanians.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Frances Kerry)