To the chants of priests, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church led more than 100,000 marchers through Belgrade Monday in the city's largest religious procession since World War II.
The outpouring of national pride and sentiment followed 10 weeks of peaceful protest against President Slobodan Milosevic, whose government sparked protests by annulling local opposition victories in November.The Orthodox Church is closely linked to traditional Serb identity, and Monday's procession was the biggest led by the church since Communist rule was imposed more than 50 years ago.
In contrast to the noisy pro-democracy demonstrations of students and opposition parties, Monoday's procession - marking the holiday of St. Sava, the founding father of the Serbian Orthodox Church - wove silently through the heart of the capital.
The only sounds were the chanting of St. Sava's liturgy by dozens of Orthodox priests in flowing robes who headed the procession, and bursts of applause for Patriarch Pavle, head of the church.
Pavle, who supports the pro-democracy demonstrations, called Monday's procession partly to see if he could pass through a police cordon that had blocked students from marching in the center of the capital.
Indeed, riot police withdrew at 4 a.m., leaving the way free for the students and, four hours later, for Pavle and the hordes who followed him.
Pavle praised the "dignified" protests and demonstrators' "democratic expression of their will."
"Today, eyes are watching us from the sky and ground and telling us to endure on the holy and righteous road," he said.
Protests against Milosevic and his neo-Communist Socialists, who have ruled since Communist rule formally ended in 1990, started after authorities denied the opposition victories in Belgrade and 13 other cities.
Demonstrations have spread to some 50 towns across Serbia, the biggest challenge to Milosevic since he took power in 1987.
Milosevic has conceded Nis and five other towns to the opposition Zajedno coalition, but he refuses to give up Belgrade and seven more.
The opposition took power in Nis Monday, the first non-Communist authorities in Serbia's second-largest city in more than 50 years. A traditional Serb anthem, "God Give Us Justice," never played under Communist rule, opened the ceremony.
Sixteen Socialist deputies boycotted the event. Zoran Zivkovic, the likely new opposition mayor, accused them of leaving him "a totally ruined city."
Many Serbs joining Monday's procession saw the St. Sava march as a way to express national unity.
"These are difficult times," said Mirjana Baltic, 61. "And this is where we can find spiritual strength."