He is an unassuming man, barely five feet tall, with a long gray beard and collar-length white hair. Shunning the trappings of office, he rides around Belgrade in the crowded Russian-built trolleys that ply the streets and relishes mingling with ordinary people.

But the spry 84-year-old, who was born Gojko Stojicevic but now is known as Pavle, patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is becoming an increasingly important player in the struggle unfolding in Yugoslavia over the fate of President Slobodan Milosevic and the governance of the country. As pressure mounts on Milosevic to quit, many Serbs want the church to take a more active role.

Opposition groups have asked the church to sponsor a transitional "government of experts" to run the country until elections are held, in the event that Milosevic is persuaded to step down. The patriarch has been invited to speak at a demonstration in Belgrade on Aug. 19 to rally popular support for the plan.

The church has already called for Milosevic to resign and is expected to back the proposed transitional government of technocrats and others who are not politicians, church officials said. Serbian Orthodox churches in the United States and other countries plan to hold prayer gatherings on Aug. 19 in solidarity with the rally. But Pavle so far has been noncommittal about his participation.

In an apparent effort to sidetrack the proposed transition plan, Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, a staunch ally of Milosevic, has said he will reshuffle the cabinet and offer posts to opposition party members. There were no immediate takers.

Adding to the pressure, Montenegro has demanded a radical loosening of relations with Serbia in the Yugoslav federation, in effect seeking its dissolution.

The church weighed in strongly against Milosevic in June when its Holy Synod sharply denounced his policy in Kosovo and demanded that he give way to a "government of national salvation." Allies of Milosevic responded by calling Pavle and other church leaders traitors.

In the Serbian town of Valjevo, a top church official addressed a recent opposition rally for the first time since the current resignation drive started. In his speech, Bishop Artemije, who heads the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, took issue with a rally organizer's remark that Milosevic should be sent to the rebellious province.

"Don't send him to Kosovo, for God's sake," the bishop said. "Send him to The Hague." Milosevic is wanted there by an international tribunal for war crimes against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population.

For his part, Patriarch Pavle "wants to be above political parties," said Dusan Batakovic, a historian and church adviser. "He will not issue more anti-Milosevic statements for fear there could be a civil war."

In a sermon last week at Belgrade's St. Marko Church, Pavle walked a fine line between Serbian responsibility for atrocities in Kosovo and the Serbs' historical sense of victimization. He denounced recent killings of Serbian residents of the province by vengeful ethnic Albanians and attacks on more than 30 Serbian churches.

"What little of our nation that is left down in Kosovo is getting killed," Pavle said. "These people were killed only for what they are, not for what they did."

Wearing a golden crown and holding a staff in one hand and a cross in the other as he spoke in the packed church, Pavle concluded: "We have to face the just judgment of God to see whether we have used the gifts that were given to us by God for good or evil, whether we were torturers and villains or we defended the just cause. Now in peace and unity, we should seek justice and salvation."

He made the remarks after a ceremony commemorating Serbs killed by Croatian forces during a mass expulsion from Croatia's Kraijina region in 1995. A church bulletin, which listed the names of victims, said 1,791 were killed or missing, including 997 civilians.

The ceremony illustrated some of the strains pulling Serbian society in different directions over Kosovo, a province containing 1,300 churches and monasteries and regarded as a cradle of the Serbian Orthodox faith. While many Serbs profess to have been shocked by the atrocities committed by forces loyal to Milosevic, others now revile him for having "lost" Kosovo.

Among the congregants were Serbs with a strong streak of nationalism, a sentiment that seems to be shared by some church officials. One worshiper carried a large black flag emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and the words, "Faith in God. Freedom or Death." A white-haired man in a military officer's uniform said he was a member of the Chetnik movement, a nationalist group that has fought for Serbian causes throughout the life of the Yugoslav federation.

A former priest, Zarko Gavrilovic, a staunch anti-communist who once urged the patriarch to excommunicate Milosevic, rejected the accounts of atrocities and said he felt betrayed by the recent U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. "Until this bombing, I thought America was the leading Christian democratic country in the world," he said. "But now when one mentions America, I get a bitter taste in my mouth."

In an earlier ceremony at St. Marko Church, Milan Popovic, a 63-year-old former electrical engineer, said, "I know that Serbs committed some terrible crimes in Kosovo, but I doubt that many others here know."

Like many here, he said he now feels oppressed by Milosevic, but he holds out little hope that the church or the opposition can do much about it.

"I don't see a way out of the situation," Popovic said.