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Hundreds of Pride activists march in Serbia despite hate messages sent by far-right officials

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Hundreds of Pride activists gathered in the Serbian capital Saturday amid a heavy police presence and anti-gay messages sent by the country’s conservative leadership and far-right groups.

Last year, the LGBTQ+ event was marred by skirmishes between the police and anti-Pride groups who believe the event goes against traditional Serbian Christian Orthodox values and should be banned.

The participants of the march on Saturday held banners reading “We Are Not Even Close” — referring to the current status of the gay population is Serbia — as well as “Marriage” and “Queer Liberation not Rainbow Capitalism.”

A heavy police presence of officers in riot gear blocked off central Belgrade. In a rally against the march, about 50 anti-gay protesters and Orthodox priests held religious icons in front of a downtown church as the Pride event participants passed by.

A group of anti-gay activists held a banner on the main downtown street that said, “I don’t want a gay parade in Belgrade.”

Before the 11th consecutive Pride event held in Serbia, the country's populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, said that as long he is in power, he wouldn't approve a law allowing same-sex marriages or partnerships. He also said that he didn't allow rainbow colored flags to be placed on flags at his downtown office during the march.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, a close Vucic ally, is the Balkan country’s first openly gay politician. She has, however, rarely spoken in favor of LGBTQ+ rights in Serbia.

Before the Pride event, the embassies and representative offices of 25 countries and the European Union delegation in Serbia issued a joint statement of support for the values of Pride and urging protection of the rights of LGBTQ+ persons.

“On the occasion of Belgrade Pride 2023, we want to reaffirm our commitment to respecting, promoting and protecting human rights for all,” the joint statement said. “We proudly stand with the LGBTQ+ community in Serbia and strongly support the values that Pride represents — acceptance, inclusion and diversity.”

Serbia formally wants to join the EU, but under Vucic’s more than decade rule it has gradually slid toward Russia and its anti-Western policies, including disrespect for the rights of gay people.