by Tamara SKROZZA
Ordinarily dressed young men took notes or recorded the lecture. Ordinarily dressed young women, mostly without make-up, nodded their heads and smiled intriguingly. One, apparently ordinary, pair of twenty-year-olds exchanged loving gazes holding hands. The audience, which, based on their age, should have been in a cinema of a café, did not show signs of boredom even after a whole ninety minutes of the lecture, nor any indication of disagreement with what was being said. The lecture was organized by the "Serb Assembly Dveri" in the great lecture hall of the Mechanical Engineering Department. The lecture is part of the four-years-old series, which has stopped provoking comments. The lecture hall with the capacity of 700 was overflowing, so that the attendees set on stairs, on the stage and on the floor.
LIBERAL AND HIS FLOCK: After the collective prayer, at the very beginning, the audience was welcomed by the dean of the Machine Engineering Department Milos Nedeljkovic. He focused on practical, so to speak secular problems. He reminded the audience that the heating had supposed to be turned off, that that hadn't happened, so that everyone was going to be warm despite the chill outside. Dean Nedeljkovic was followed by the editor of the magazine "Pravoslavlje" [Eastern Orthodox Christianity] who summarized the contents of the most recent issue of the magazine, and then by a representative of the organization "Dveri". He reminded that the new series of lectures, known as "Mechanical Engineering on Thursday", as until now would "respond to eternal and spiritual issues of self-abolishment and self-denial". The audience could also learn about the conclusions of the Assembly of Serb Youth, held in August - nine points that constitute the "Program of the Serb Youth" and deserve a separate article. Nevertheless, let us mention here that the main points were "struggle for biological and spiritual renewal of ourselves and our nation and people around us", "the demand that state institutions of the Serb nation follow the path of the Serb Orthodox Church and all those who have risen in protection of the Serb language and the Serb Cyrillic alphabet". An especially interesting point has to do with technology: "Aware that we are in the midst of a technological-information civilization with all of its advantages and disadvantages we accept computers and the Internet as means for work. The issue of digitized personal and other identification documents hasn't been investigated enough, so that the Assembly of the Serb Youth, due to danger of abuse, urges that a wide debate be conducted on this topic, including all relevant state institutions, distinguished experts from that field as well as representatives of the Serb Orthodox Church".
Bishop Porfirije's lecture was next, followed by a question and answer session. As the whole function had been going on for almost two hours, so that mobile phones and even a cry of a baby (!!!) could be heard from the audience, it was to be expected that there would be very few questions and that they would not be that interesting. However, that was only the beginning. Namely, anyone entering accidentally the great lecture hall of the Mechanical Engineering Department at that moment could only conclude that the monk at the lectern is an extremely liberal individual addressing visitors from the mediaeval times. The same youthful, ordinarily dressed individuals asked, for example, about the posthumous status of those who enter marriage in sin (not as virgins); can a believer marry a non-believer?; what is the church's attitude regarding those who neither want to have sex nor to become monks or nuns?; what is the SOC's attitude regarding the so-called white monks (when a married couple decides to give up sex for religious reasons, author's remark)? - and so on. To these questions, the bishop replied, sometimes even with a smile, the way every educated secular person would - advocating tolerance and personal choice, but also mentioning (in local religious right circles frequently forgotten) fact that "80 to 90 percent of saints, if moral purity of most of their lives was exposed to scrutiny, instead of their later acceptance of God, would be ejected from Church calendars".
Whatever the case, everything concluded with a short word by dean Nedeljkovic and finally the audience dispersed. The road towards the exit from the world of self-denial and self-abolishment nevertheless did not go straight to the street. The hall of the Mechanical Engineering Department was full of stalls with appropriate merchandise, T-shirts, badges, books by bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, cassette tapes and sermons.
EXEMPLARY TOLERANCE: Perhaps, the lecture would not be that unusual if it were taking place in the Seminary building, in some church, or (why not) just finished monumental building of the Patriarchate in Vracar. However, as despite thousands of square feet of space built for the SOC needs over the last few years the lecture is traditionally held on the premises of the officially autonomous Belgrade University, everything appears rather strange. One cannot but wonder about the official ban on political and religious agitation at the University, the role of the Mechanical Engineering Department as the host for the lectures, the fact that a religious gathering of Serb Orthodox youth is addressed by the dean personally, as well as the fact that a hall of one of the University buildings is on this occasion converted into a bookstore offering religious materials. "We have an agreement with Dveri, which does not include any financial aspects. Namely, we offer assistance, various exchanges, printing and similar stuff," dean Milan Nedeljkovic explained for Vreme. According to him "the department usually charges for the use of the lecture hall, but all publicly financed university departments are not allowed to rent their lecture halls". Consequently, an "agreement" has been reached. To our request to reveal details of the agreement Nedeljkovic responded by saying that "Vreme could also use the same space if it wanted, and in return we would request that a paid advertisement be published or something similar". As far as the sale of religious materials in the hall of the department is concerned, the dean had a similar explanation: "That is nothing unusual. People sell old textbooks, lecture notes and everything students need all the time". The dean justifies his address of the gathering by the fact that he was its host after all, just the way he will soon host the forthcoming gathering of the Alternative Academic Educational Network. "Look, they work with Soros, and some will have an issue with that, because some advocate this, some that. I don't look at it that way. We support openness and I don't see why the department should exclude anyone from its premises".
Before the present two-year stint at the Mechanical Engineering Department the lectures dealing with self-denial and self-abolishment were held at the Philology department. "On December 12, 2002, we had a lecture at the Philology department. Its guest was bishop Atanasije Jevtic and the topic was Saint Sava's Legacy (an unusual topic for bishop Atanasije). More than 1000 students gathered. It appears that number frightened certain neoliberal-civic structures in the government, so that after that lecture we were not allowed to have any more lectures at the Philology department. After a series of 50 lectures at the Philology department the (newly appointed) dean referred to us as ‘unreliable partners'", states the web site of Dveri Srpske. The same web site, immediately below, emphasizes determination: "Rest assured that Dveri Srpske will not surrender. We continue organizing lectures at other departments of the Belgrade University, all over Belgrade and Serbia. They cannot shut down Dveri [dveri is an archaic word for doors, or a gate]". Having in mind that this organization has for four years already managed to do what many politicians in Serbia can only dream about - to regularly bring together about one thousand supporters - such determination is not surprising. However, given that the Belgrade University is by law prevented from allowing any political and religious activities on its premises, it is surprising that the Ministry of Education has been silent regarding the founding of Obraz, association "Holly Justin Philosopher", and even the founding of Dveri Srpske. All these groups, organizations or associations (as you please) were created precisely at the University. In that sense, Dveri were even provided conditions to expand their activities. Initially, in 1999, this organization's activities boiled down to publishing of a magazine "created at the Philology department", which later expended to wider publishing activities (regular publication of the magazine, bulletins, compilations of articles and finally books), organization of debates and lectures "where public was presented our activities", promotions, working meetings, an Internet presentation, TV appearances, and even their own TV show at TV Cacak. The Belgrade University even permitted Dveri to organize the "First Assembly of Eastern Orthodox Serb Youth at the Belgrade University since 1944", in cooperation with the student organization "Holly Justin Philosopher" (also founded at the University). The assembly, held at the department of Philology in December 2001, was closely followed by the local media, accused Dositej Obradovic and Vuk Karadzic of being responsible for the "current rule of the civic democratic mob", labeled new ministers as "Communist plague", declared that Nedic, LJotic and Draza Mihajlovic were Serb martyrs, and denounced as "devil's spawn" Otpor, writer Vladimir Arsenijevic, [singer] Djordje Balazevic and [actor] Rade Serbedzija.
To such activities and much more similar stuff, University professors, deans, rectors, ministers responded with silence and "academic tolerance". Preoccupied with reforms or mutual "academic" sniping about offices and biographies, they were silent while Dveri in their "territory" offered lectures about "church as the core of the nation", about Radovan Karadzic, "Eastern Orthodox response to feminism" or "Eastern Orthodoxy and war". Ignoring the fact that these lectures presented views in total opposition with material they teach to their students, they were silent and have been silent for four years already.
One of the results of that silence is the overflowing hall of the Mechanical Engineering Department. The spot that in the past initiated various student protests, where in the past we could listen to the most progressive representatives of the University, is today the spot where prudish twenty year old women (and even somewhat older ladies) approvingly nod listening to theories about female obedience and denial of their own will in marriage. The spot ruled by laws of science by day, once a week becomes the spot where bishop Porfirije sounds like a liberal intellectual.
Dveri Srpske are not responsible for such a situation. We can hardly blame those who, seeking their own path, regularly come to 150 minutes long religious lectures. Besides, given that the lectures are offered at the University, that probably gives them academic legitimacy. We cannot even blame the Serbian Orthodox Church, given that they, just like anyone else, have the right to publicly promote their views. The blame rests on those who, forgetting the laws and importance of the University, allowed in 1999 and continue to allow such activities at the University. Dveri Srpske should consider inviting to one of their lectures some of them. When it comes to self-denial and self-abolition, professors, deans and ministers could teach them quite a lot.
"That constitutes freedom of expression. The University is not entitled to discriminate. This was an informal expression of opinion that in no way contradicts materials taught at the department," Nedeljkovic said for Vreme.
Besides, readers had the opportunity to learn that the cartoon South Park is a "Satanist project", and that the TV series Sex and the City "openly replaces marriage, blessed by God, by the cult of fornication, unnatural deviation and monstrous communities of the New Age". There are also "childhood horrors with Barbie dolls and senseless bedtime stories, growing up with godless education system and Satanist rock bands, youth without virginity", as well as assertions that "the family is dying while the sinful individualist cupidity is on the ascendance".
All of that for 100 dinars can be read by Belgrade students at the University. Those who don't get it right away can come to lectures, which are free. With tacit tolerance of those who proudly bear their academic titles forgetting the way in which they earned them at one point.
Still, just like most of local enterprises, it seems Dveri do encounter problems in their work. In that sense they mention "Financial problems, lack of office space, insufficiently developed distribution network for the magazine".