Dispute between pastor, lay church leaders, divides Serbian Orthodox parish

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

LEBANON, Pa. (AP) The tiny Serbian Orthodox church tucked away among a block of aging row houses usually attracts little notice in this central Pennsylvania town.

But the arrest of the pastor has exposed simmering tensions among older, American-born parishioners and younger, European-born congregants who have joined more recently.

The pastor, the Rev. Filip Velisavljevic, is accused of threatening to shoot the incoming church council president during a dispute over policy. He says he's innocent, but was released from his church post Jan. 30.

After the confrontation, the bishop also dissolved the council of lay leaders in early February led by president Frederick Pantelich, until a church investigation into the incident is completed.

The disputes concern relatively minor issues, such as how social gatherings are organized, but they have contributed to a rift within the 112-member Church of the Holy Resurrection of Christ, said Pantelich and Helen Resanovich, the former council vice president.

There's a conflict every time you turn around, and we're not used to that,'' Resanovich said.

The council and the priest had gotten along well for the first 13 of his 15 years in the parish, council members say. But over the last couple of years, the younger newcomers convinced the priest to support the changes they wanted, the 68-year-old Pantelich said.


A car passes the Church of Holy Resurrection of Christ in Lebanon, Pa., Dec. 12, 2002. The Rev. Filip Velisavljevic, the former pastor of this Serbian Orthodox Church, is accused of threatening to shoot the church council president during a dispute over policy.

AP Photo/Kalim A. Bhatti

He (Velisavljevic) wanted to run the show,'' Pantelich said.

Momcilo Miljkovic, a Serbian-born parishioner, blames the tensions on the unwillingness of the church's American-born members to accept the newer arrivals.

Council members say many of the immigrants, who have arrived in the aftermath of war in Yugoslavia, live in surrounding counties and estimate that they constitute about 25 percent of the congregation.

Miljkovic moved to central Pennsylvania in 1968, a year after he immigrated to America. He began attending Holy Resurrection of Christ two years ago because he was dissatisfied with the way services were conducted at the Serbian Orthodox church he attended near Harrisburg.

In Lebanon, however, the church council has resisted ideas proposed by the newer members, such as establishing a folkloric dancing group, he said.

The Serbian-Americans have said that the church is their church, so therefore everyone else is a guest. But the church belongs to everybody who believes in God,'' he said.

On Dec. 9, the day after Pantelich was elected president, the priest asked whether there would be any policy changes, police said.

Pantelich said he told the priest: The board is going to run things now, not just the priest.''' And that is allegedly when the priest made the threat.

Velisavljevic, 54, has been ordered to stand trial on charges of simple assault, unlawful restraint, reckless endangerment and making terroristic threats. He remains free on $10,000 bail as he awaits a trial date, which has not been scheduled.

After the council relieved him of his pastoral duties Dec. 23, Bishop Longin, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate of New Gracanica for the Diocese of America and Canada in Grayslake, Ill., released him from the parish and appointed an interim priest.

I can only say, God forgive them, for they know not what they do,'' said Velisavljevic, paraphrasing the words of Christ on the cross in the Gospel of Luke.

The diocese is conducting its own investigation to determine whether the priest can remain with the church, in which case he would be assigned to another parish, said the Rev. Milorad Loncar, a spokesman for the bishop.

As far as the diocese was concerned, it was only fair to relieve both Velisavljevic and the council of their respective duties pending the outcome of the investigation, Loncar said.

This incident that took place hasn't just come out of nowhere. It was the result of problems that the council has had in the past,'' he said.

Upset by their ouster, the former council sent a letter to Longin on Feb. 6 threatening to terminate'' the church's association with the diocese, but Loncar said that any such decision must be approved by members of the parish and the diocese.

In the meantime, the diocese is looking for a new pastor and has faith that the church members can resolve their differences, Loncar said.

When people argue, especially in the church community, we pray to God that things will be resolved and that everything will go back to normal,'' he said. All the people basically are good and they love their church, and the fact that there has been some misunderstanding, we hope, will be overcome.''

On the Net:

Serbian Orthodox Church: http://www.serbianorthodoxchurch.com/

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