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By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Half a million people from Serbia and neighbouring countries attended the funeral on Thursday of Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, who presided over the revival of the faith after decades of communist rule.
Pavle's departure could pave the way for a more moderate leader, although many bishops take a hard line on Kosovo, the cradle of their medieval Orthodox Christianity which declared independence last year. Pavle died at the age 95 on Sunday.
Serbian police estimated at least 500,000 people lined the streets and main church along the 11 km (7 miles) route to the final resting place in Belgrade's suburban Rakovica monastery.
Bishops and top clergy in ornate white robes led the funeral procession. Serbian army guard in ceremonial blue uniforms flanked the hearse carrying Pavle's body in an open casket, covered by a gold-embroidered green cloth.
Some schools and offices were closed in both Serbia and in neighbouring Bosnia's Serb Republic.
Most of Serbia's seven million people are of Orthodox heritage, and the church, which casts an important influence over Serbian society and tradition, has large dioceses abroad.
Several bishops are vying to replace Pavle, including Amfilohije, who vehemently opposes any softening of Belgrade's position that Kosovo remains part of Serbia.
More relatively moderate bishops, including Irinej from northern Serbia or Grigorije from neighbouring Bosnia, are also in contention.
"As the country is now progressing towards Europe, we now need a Patriarch who will ... lead us to that new world," said Jovan, 37, a monk from Serbia's south.
FATE OF KOSOVO
Born in 1914 into the Austro-Hungarian empire in what is today Croatia, Pavle lived through the end of that empire and the creation and eventual collapse of Yugoslavia.
Critics say during the bloody end of Yugoslavia in the 1990s Pavle failed to contain hardline bishops and priests who stoked Serb nationalism and publicly blessed paramilitaries who committed war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
"Nobody can deny inglorious role of the Serb Orthodox Church, led by him, during the recent wars," columnist Gojko Beric wrote in Bosnia's newspaper Oslobodjenje on Thursday.
Pavle at first tacitly backed President Slobodan Milosevic, who stoked those wars, but in the late 1990s he openly sided with the pro-democratic opposition.
The fate of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian, was at the top of Pavle's agenda. The Serb government also refuses to recognise the state, but too tough a stance could complicate its goal of joining the European Union.
Amid an officially declared swine flu epidemic, TV and radio stations urged those with flu symptoms to stay at home or wear surgical masks during the procession. Many hours of proceedings held on a warm and sunny day were broadcast live by state TV.
Serbian President Boris Tadic, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, top clergy and dignitaries from Russia, Czech Republic, Albania and other countries including Pope Benedict's envoy, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, attended the ceremony.
(Editing by Adam Tanner and Diana Abdallah)