BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For the first time in more than 40 years, government-controlled newspapers Wednesday printed excerpts of a Christmas address delivered by the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Church leader Patriarch German, spiritual head of Yugoslavia's largest religious community, appealed for goodwill among all peoples and called for efforts to 'build peace ... to remove distrust among people, in the family, in inter-human, inter-nation and inter-state relations.'
The Serbian Orthodox Church observes Christmas each year on Jan. 7 under the ancient Julian calendar. Most other religious denominations, including Roman Catholics, follow the Gregorian calendar, with Christmas falling Dec. 25.
For more than 40 years, church dignitaries in communist-run Yugoslavia had delivered their sermons in churches and published addresses to believers only in church newspapers -- never in the official press.
In another Christmas-related precedent, Archbishop Alojzij Sustar of Ljubljana in northwestern Yugoslavia addressed nearly 2 million Roman Catholic Slovenes on Dec. 24, wishing them Merry Christmas over state-controlled Radio Ljubljana. The previous day, Joze Smole, president of the Slovenian Socialist Alliance, relayed Christmas greetings to Slovenian believers over Ljubljana television.
Yugoslavia's 23 million people live in six constituent republics comprising five Slavic nations and two major non-Slavic ethnic groups.
There are three major religious communities, with the Orthodox group comprising 11.5 million Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins. There are 7.5 million Roman Catholics, primarily among the Croats, Slovenes and Hungarians, and 4 million Moslems, including 1.9 ethnic Albanians.
Although there are no official statistics, about 70 percent of Yugoslavs are believed to be religious.
Relations between church and state were strained after World War II when the Yugoslav Communist Party came to power in 1945, partly because some church officials had supported the Nazi occupying forces. Church news has not been published in the official press since then.
But relations between the government and all churches has improved. Yugoslavia and the Vatican re-established diplomatic ties in 1966. The state and the churches are separated and no religious holiday is recognized officially by the state.