Australian police banned Very Rev. Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Milorad Loncar, a member of the Serbian Orthodox clergy in Melbourne, on Friday from visiting detained tennis star Novak Djokovic, outraging Serbs around the world.
Australian Border Force detained Djokovic – the top-ranked tennis player in the world and tied for most Grand Slam titles in men’s tennis history – this week upon his arrival to Melbourne on the grounds that he had not received doses of a Chinese coronavirus vaccine product. Djokovic posted on social media prior to his detention that he had received an unspecified “exemption” from the vaccine mandate in the country, but authorities denied that this was the case. Reports suggested that Tennis Australia, the organization responsible for hosting the Australian Open, had informed Djokovic that he had received an exemption, but border officials rejected his Tennis Australia paperwork when he arrived.
Djokovic’s attorneys appealed a deportation order, resulting in police moving the champion into a notoriously dirty, inhumane facility for refugees until his case receives a hearing Monday. Supporters of Djokovic, many of them fellow Serbs, have organized outside of the refugee center to call for his release, and hundreds gathered in Belgrade on Thursday and Friday to protest Australia’s draconian coronavirus policies.
In Melbourne, the Djokovic protesters clashed with the longtime, established protest presence calling for freedom for all the refugees trapped at the Park Hotel – some actively calling for Djokovic’s removal and others urging the pro-Djokovic protesters to support his fellow inmates at the “hotel”:
Friday is Orthodox Christmas, one of the holiest days in the Christian faith. Rev. Loncar joined the protesters Friday and requested permission to visit and bless Djokovic for the occasion. Authorities denied the request:
Church representatives in Melbourne issued a statement confirming the denial, asserting that authorities only said that no one was allowed into the hotel generally, not offering any explanation specific to Djokovic’s situation.
The Serbian magazine Telegraf reported that Australian officials had denied all refugees and foreigners detained at the facility access to religious services since at least July 2021.
“Moreover, since the beginning of the pandemic, the facility has been closed for visits of any kind for a long period of time, which has deprived detainees of the spiritual and emotional support of the clergy,” Telegraf reported, “regardless of religious affiliation.”
The Serbian magazine, which has been supportive of Djokovic and in contact with his family, asserted, “We warn of this gross violation of fundamental human rights and call on those responsible to urgently allow free and unhindered access to people who will provide pastoral and emotional support for all people in detention.”
Rev. Loncar did not leave the area upon being rejected. Instead, the priest held a liturgy outside surrounded by protesters waving the Serbian flag. Telegraf reported that eyewitnesses heard cheers and applause from refugees trapped in the facility. Much of the crowd attended the event carrying images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Australia’s the Age reported that about 200 protesters had gathered in support of Djokovic by Friday afternoon and the core group said they would not leave the area outside of the center until Djokovic himself could leave. The group also attracted pro-migrant protesters who objected to Djokovic’s presence in the country.
“The crowd swelled up again just before 5pm, when members of the anti-racism group Campaign Against Racism and Fascism rolled into Lincoln Square carrying banners with the slogan ‘Refugees are welcome, Djokovic is not,’ drawing the ire of the star’s supporters,” the Age observed, adding that other protesters appeared motivated less by Serbian ethnic pride and more by opposition to coronavirus vaccine mandates:
One man held an umbrella that read “sack Dan Andrews” and “no vax passports”. Another man, Nick Downing, gripped a sign that simply said “no”.
“I used to have a sign that said no pandemic legislation, let us manage our risk. But that was too complicated,” Mr Downing said.
“I don’t agree with caging refugees, I don’t agree with caging Novak, and I don’t agree with … tyranny.”
Djokovic has previously declared himself “opposed to vaccination” and defiantly attempted to organize his own tennis tournament, the Adria Tour, at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
In Belgrade, Djokovic’s parents, Srdjan and Dijana, organized a Christmas protest demanding Australia free their son, the second in as many days:
Patriarch Porfirije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, published a message to Djokovic on Friday, sending him support and blessings.
“Dear Nole, only a pale shadow will remain from the troubles and temptations you are going through on Christmas Day, a day of pure joy,” the message read in part. “God is great and you know who you are as you grew up with the sound of bells from the Nemanjic family [Serbian dynasty in the Middle Ages] endowments. Millions of Orthodox Serbs are praying for you, like they are praying for us.”
Djokovic’s official Instagram account also posted a message celebrating Christmas and thanking supporters.
“The peace of God, Christ is born. May God’s love fill and strengthen you,” the message read. In English, Djokovic’s account posted, “Thank you to people around the world for your continuous support. I can feel it and it is greatly appreciated.”
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