THE Serbian Orthodox Church has protested against Australia’s refusal to allow Novak Djokovic to see a priest during the Orthodox Christmas. The Serbian Patriarch has pledged support and sympathy for the detained tennis star.
“We have been informed that no religious visits to detainees have been allowed since July 2021: detainees have been deprived of the spiritual and emotional support of clergy, regardless of religious affiliation,” said the Church’s Metropolitanate of Australia and New Zealand, based in Sydney. “Rules are rules, the Prime Minister said recently regarding the detention of Novak Djokovic. What about respecting the rules we have accepted as signatories to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights?”
The statement coincided with a Christmas prayer service, held in Melbourne for Mr Djokovic, who still faces deportation despite a court judgment ordering his release.
The Serbian Orthodox leader, Patriarch Porfirije, praised the Belgrade-born champion for knowing his Christian identity after growing up to the sound of Orthodox church bells. “Only a pale shadow will remain of the troubles and tribulations you are going through this Christmas,” he told Mr Djokovic in an Instagram post, which received hundreds of messages of support.
“Millions of Orthodox Serbs are praying for you, as you pray for us. May the imperishable warmth and love of the Bethlehem manger warm and strengthen your heart and soul.”
Mr Djokovic, a devout Orthodox Christian and vaccination sceptic, was detained on 5 January after arriving to seek a record tenth victory in the Australian Open tournament (due to begin on 17 January), when the federal government’s Border Force revoked a Covid medical exemption by the state of Victoria and cancelled his visa.
Supporters waved flags and banners in Melbourne and Belgrade in protest at his detention, which was overturned on Monday when the federal circuit and family court awarded Mr Djokovic costs for procedural irregularities.
Archpriest Milorad Locard, from Holy Trinity, a Serbian Orthodox church in Melbourne, who was barred from visiting the world number one player in the Park Hotel centre immediately before the Orthodox Christmas, described Mr Djokovic’s treatment as “appalling”, saying that it was “unthinkable” that he had been forced to spend Christmas incarcerated.
The Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate, which has 51 parishes and monasteries in Australia and New Zealand, said that some refugees, including “vulnerable children’’, had been detained for more than two years at the Park Hotel, adding that “no effort” had been made by Australian officials to facilitate pastoral visits.
“We warn of this gross violation of fundamental human rights, and call on the responsible authorities urgently to allow free and unhindered access to people who will provide pastoral and emotional support.”
Mr Djokovic, who wears a wooden cross during matches, has sponsored many charitable projects through a foundation established in his name in 2007, including the purchase of ventilators and medical equipment for Serbian hospitals during the pandemic. In 2011, he was awarded the Serbian Church’s highest honour, the Order of St Sava, for supporting religious causes, including the safeguarding of historic Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo.
In a YouTube Christmas message from detention, the star wished fellow Christians “peace, family love, and an abundance of good things”, and thanked fans and well-wishers for their support.
Patriarch Porfirije, who praised Mr Djokovic after his ninth Australian Open title in 2021 for “raising morale and filling hearts with pride”, tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday after a visit to Republika Srpska, in Bosnia, although the Belgrade Patriarchate described his symptoms as “very mild”.
His predecessor, Patriarch Irinej, died with the virus, aged 90, in 2020 (News, 27 November 2020), after officiating at the funeral of Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic of Montenegro, who was also a Covid-19 victim.
Almost 13,000 coronavirus deaths had been recorded by Monday in Serbia, whose predominant Orthodox Church claims to have 12 million followers, mostly in the Balkans.
In an Instagram statement on Tuesday, Mr Djokovic admitted that he had attended several sports events in his native Serbia before travelling to Australia, but had also made an “error of judgement” by taking part in an interview and photoshoot with France’s L’Equipe daily newspaper, after testing positive for Covid-19, so as not to “let the journalist down”.
He said that his agent regretted the “administrative mistake” of “ticking an incorrect box” on his travel declaration before his arrival in Melbourne, and that he had “utmost respect” for the Australian government and authorities in their handling of his case.
Mr Djokovic now faces deportation, after the Australian government cancelled his visa for a second time, on Friday morning (14 January). A statement from the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said that he made the order “on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so”.
The government of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Mr Hawke said.
Mr Djokovic can still launch another legal challenge, however, before the Australian Open begins on Monday.