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By Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's Orthodox Church accused the government on Monday of surrendering the country's former province of Kosovo in exchange for talks on joining the European Union.
Serb nationalist protesters also vowed "no surrender" in the first signs of a backlash that could, if it gains ground, test the government's resolve to carry out an historic accord struck last week with Kosovo.
Patriarch Irinej, who heads the Serbian Orthodox Church, denounced Belgrade's agreement to cede its last foothold in Kosovo under the deal that opens the door to EU accession talks.
"This appears to mark the pure surrender ... of our most important territory in spiritual and historical terms," he said in a statement.
Landlocked and impoverished, Kosovo is steeped in history and myth for Serbs as the cradle of their nation and Orthodox faith, and home to some of their most revered religious sites.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, recommended on Monday that accession talks should begin and a final decision by the bloc is expected in June. The talks have the potential to drive reform and lure investors to the largest country to emerge from ashes of federal Yugoslavia.
However, Patriarch Irinej urged parliament and the president to overturn the EU-brokered Kosovo accord. "The price of eventual entry to the EU will be formal recognition by Serbia of an 'independent Kosovo'," he said.
Analysts say the government so far has the balance of public opinion in Serbia behind the Kosovo deal, under which it also agreed to end the young country's ethnic partition between the Albanian majority and a pocket of about 50,000 Serbs.
However, the region bristles with weapons and animosity, and the accord could yet unravel if the Serb minority in northern Kosovo resists.
Ninety percent of Kosovo's 1.7 million people are Albanians, who broke away in 1999 when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt their massacre and expulsion by Serbian forces fighting a counter-insurgency war.
In the ethnically-divided northern town of Mitrovica, more than 5,000 Serbs rallied against the deal, which calls for their integration into Kosovo's legal framework in exchange for limited autonomous powers. Up to 2,000 also marched in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, calling for a referendum on the deal.
The Serb north had functioned largely as part of the Serbian state since 1999 and even after Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008.
Desperate for the economic boost of closer EU ties, Serbia also promised not to obstruct Kosovo's path to eventual membership of the 27-nation bloc. All but five EU member states recognise Kosovo as independent.
Protesters in Mitrovica chanted "Treason, treason!" and "No surrender!".
"No one has the right to push us into an unrecognised state against our will," said Dragisa Milovic, mayor of the northern Kosovo municipality of Zvecan.
But the reaction in Serbia has been muted so far compared with riots in 2008 after Kosovo's declaration of independence, when protesters set fire to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade.
On Sunday, hecklers demonstrated at the start of the Belgrade marathon, shouting "We won't give up Kosovo" and unfurling a banner that read "We defend Serbia". One protester approached Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and asked him: "Do you sleep peacefully at night?"
(Additional reporting by Branislav Krstic in Mitrovica; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by David Stamp)