Religious hardliners in Serbia are being accused of abuse of minors – and even of breaking the law – in connection with a controversial summer camp.
The 15 children attending the St Lazar’s Summer Youth Camp this July in the Kučaj mountains of eastern Serbia were taught to wear military uniform and shoot from replica Kalashnikov rifles.
The camp was organised by a breakaway sect styling itself the Serbian True Orthodox Church, whose leader, Nemanja Stankovic, was expelled from the Serbian Orthodox Church – Serbia’s main faith group.
According to the organisation’s website, the days at the camp started with prayers, the raising of the national flag and the singing of the national anthem.
Over the next ten days, the children engaged in sporting activities, camping and long walks – all regular activities in summer camps.
The difference is that they also wore masked uniforms and learned how to shoot from automatic rifles, using replica kalashnikovs.
The camp organisers said they aimed to “deeply root in young participants a sense of community, civility, self-sacrifice, courage, spirituality and unwavering loyalty to the Orthodox faith and fatherland.
“The latter includes military discipline… and some of the most basic forms of military training. Military dress style also aids a feeling of willingness to serve the fatherland,” writes the website of the organisation.
The camp also provided its attendees basic education about the “sublime and indispensable of the Orthodox (non-parliamentary) monarchy, while exposing the false, and for Serbian people pernicious, political directions of communism and democracy”.
The organisers believe that young people “need help to resist militant secularism and liberalism-denationalisation and de-Christianisation of the soul.
“Rehabilitation and the survival of the Serbian people depend on work with our youth,” the Serbian True Orthodox Church said.
Leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church said they were not impressed. One bishop, Metropolitan Porfirije, told newspapers that the camp’s message was un-Christian.
“The way children are being militarised, misled and abused is scandalous. This has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, Christ and the Gospel, and I’m urging authorities to investigate this group,” the bishop told the daily newspaper Kurir.
Zivica Tucic, a religious analyst, said the existence of such a camp could be considered an example of religious extremism and an attempt to create a militant organisation.
“A religious group, whatever it may be, may not exploit children. This is nothing but abuse of minors and their religious feelings. It is a violation of law and morality, and that is unacceptable,” Tucic told the daily Blic.
He said the police and organisation for the protection of children’s rights should investigate. One bishop, Metropolitan Porfirije believes that the camp’s message was un-Christian.
However, Nemanja Stankovic, aka Bishop Akakije, leader of the self-styled Serbian True Orthodox Church, sounded unrepentant.
“We have not breached any law, or done anything against the constitution. The most important thing is that we have a skilled cadre that work with children,” Akakije told Kurir.
Serbian True Orthodox Church, formed in the mid-1990s, fiercely opposes all contact between the Orthodox Church and other faith groups. Their slogan is “Orthodoxy or Death”. Similar organisations exist in Russia and Greece.