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By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Patriarch Pavle, who headed the Serbian Orthodox Church during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s as Serbs warred with neighbours of other faiths, died on Sunday, a top church official said.
Pavle, 95, died at a special apartment in Belgrade's Military Hospital where he had been treated since 2007 for various ailments, Bishop Amfilohije, the acting head of the church's Holy Synod, said in a statement.
"The death of Patriarch Pavle is a huge loss for Serbia," President Boris Tadic said in a statement. "There are people who bond entire nations and Pavle was such a person."
Thousands of mourners flocked to churches throughout the country after Pavle's death was announced. The government ordered three days of national mourning until Wednesday.
Critics say Pavle failed to contain hardline bishops and priests who stoked Serb nationalism against Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians and publicly blessed paramilitaries who committed war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia.
After the war, he became more vocal in politics and openly criticized the policies of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Although nominally still head of the church until death, Pavle had given up its day-to-day running in 2008 as his health deteriorated.
FATE OF KOSOVO
Pavle's body was transferred to the main Saborna Crkva church in Belgrade where it will lie in state until the funeral which will be scheduled for early next week.
"Pavle was a living saint and he now went to the saints," said Biljana Djukic, 28, a schoolteacher from Belgrade as she lit candles in front of Belgrade's St. Sava church.
According to official data, about 85 percent of Serbs who make up 82 percent of Serbia's 7.3 million population are members of the Serbian Orthodox church.
Pavle was born Gojko Stojcevic in 1914 in Kucanci, a village then in the Austro-Hungarian empire and is now in Croatia.
In 1957, he became bishop in charge of Kosovo, by then home to an Albanian majority. He openly spoke of the hardships faced by the province's minority Serbs, and on one occasion in the 1970s was attacked and beaten.
The fate of Kosovo remained top of his agenda after he became Patriarch in 1990, when growing tensions between Yugoslavia's Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim faiths were leading towards the communist country's violent breakup.
A modest man who often preferred public transport to a chauffer-driven car and who cobbled his own shoes, Pavle was popular among most clergy members and the faithful.
But critics said Pavle allowed the church to slip into nationalist policies and failed to mend ties with Orthodox churches in neighbouring Macedonia and Montenegro.
He also played a pivotal role in the church's opposition to the Pope's desire to visit Serbia.
Pavle's successor will be elected in a secret vote at a conclave attended by at least two-thirds of the total of 40 bishops.
It remains unclear who will replace Pavle. Since 2008, hardline Metropolitan Amfilohije, who divides his time between Belgrade and Montenegro, has served as acting church leader.
(Editing by Charles Dick)