PEC, Kosovo (Reuters) - Serbian Orthodox Church and political leaders gather on Sunday to enthrone a new patriarch to guide a religion embodying the spirit of Serbia, but the once a generation ceremony will take place on foreign soil in Kosovo.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but many Serbs still see Kosovo and the monasteries there as the cradle of their Orthodox religion. Old churches and monasteries dot the landscape of the smallest country in the Balkans.
"As you can imagine the political situation is very heated now in the period of the patriarch's enthronement," said one Serbian Orthodox Church official who did not want to be named.
"The church needs a long-term arrangement which would guarantee its normal life, preservation of its identity and religious freedom, autonomous right to manage its properties in Kosovo as well as special provisions for protected zones."
Among those expected on Sunday is Serbian President Boris Tadic, whose government does not recognise the independence of its former province.
And with thousands of Serbs expected to travel through an Albanian-majority area for the ceremony, officials are on guard against trouble.
A reinforced number of Italian soldiers, part of a NATO mission, guard the walls of the frescoed Pec Patriarchate where Irinej will be enthroned.
"We will provide security for them but (Serb officials) must not use this religion event for a political campaign," Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci told Reuters.
Until this month, Serbia sought to isolate Kosovo, but under European Union pressure, Belgrade has agreed to negotiate on practical issues, including on assuring access to the fate of the churches, in talks to begin in October.
To date, the Serbian Orthodox Church and Pristina authorities have not talked officially.
"There so many sensitivities and political considerations on the two sides that made direct talks not possible," said Dimitris Moschopoulos, who serves as the intermediary for talks as head of the Greek liaison office.
"The EU perspective is the best instrument to overcome the difficulties and the problems between Kosovo and Serbia."
An Orthodox nation with strong traditional ties to Serbia, Greece is one of five in the EU which does not diplomatically recognise Kosovo.
Peace between the faiths and peoples of Kosovo will be key to its future. Independent since 2008, Kosovo would like to attract investment and one day join the EU, but strained relations with Serbia are a major obstacle.
Ruled by the Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1990s, Kosovars saw the Serbian Orthodox Church as a decisive factor that stoked Serb nationalism against the 90 percent ethnic Albanian population. The division ended with the 1999 war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian separatists.
More than 90 percent of Kosovo's population are Albanian Muslims but Islam is not central to the lives of most Kosovars, in contrast to Kosovo Serbs, who consider their religion a vital element of national identity.
During the Kosovo war, Serb forces destroyed more than 200 mosques, according to the office of the Islamic Community. The Serbian Orthodox Church, which counts its local flock at around 120,000, said more than 150 of its religious sites were burned or desecrated after the war ended in 1999.
(Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Belgrade; editing by Alison Williams)
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