Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Church Dispute Sparks Ethnic Tensions in Macedonian Village

Dispute over plans for new church upsets Oktisi’s long history of Muslim-Christian coexistence.
By Stefan Heger
  • (Photo: Stefan Heger)
    (Photo: Stefan Heger)
  • (Photo: Stefan Heger)
    (Photo: Stefan Heger)
  • (Photo: Stefan Heger)
    (Photo: Stefan Heger)
  • (Photo: Stefan Heger)
    (Photo: Stefan Heger)
  • (Photo: Stefan Heger)
    (Photo: Stefan Heger)
  • (Photo: Stefan Heger)
    (Photo: Stefan Heger)

Plans for a new Christian church in a village in southwestern Macedonia have angered local Muslims, and there are fears that the dispute could open up ethnic as well as religious divisions in what was previously a peaceful community.

The Orthodox Christians in Oktisi belong to the Macedonian majority, while most of the Muslims are Albanians, an ethnic group that accounts for about a quarter of the country’s population.

The village saw angry scenes last month, when Muslim villagers tried to block work on the Church of St. Demetrius, at a site which Christians say is a historical place of worship. The proposed site is located in the Muslim part of Oktisi. Zijadin Zela, mayor of the Struga municipality which includes Oktisi, has called a halt to construction while efforts are made to find a peaceful solution.

For residents of Oktisi, which lies at the foot of the Jablanica mountains separating Macedonia from Albania, the dispute is an unwelcome disruption in an area which has escaped that ethnic strife that has affected other parts of the country and the wider region in the past.

“I have lived together with Muslims in the village all my life, but now Christians and Muslims don’t even greet each other on the streets any more,” 70-year old Radislav Glauinçeski said.

In 2001, conflict broke out between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces. The war officially ended after seven months with the signing of the Ohrid Agreement granting more rights to the country’s Albanian. Despite that, divisions remain and tensions emerge sporadically.

The last major outbreak of trouble was in March, when the capital Skopje experienced two days of violent protests against the appointment of Talat Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian and former guerrilla, as Macedonia’s defence minister.

Although ethnically mixed, the region where Oktisi is located was not involved in the 2001 conflict, but tensions now seem to be rising here.

“Life in Oktisi will never be the same again,” said Glauinçeski, who is Orthodox. “It’s a shame that politics has affected life in our village. We have tried not to watch what’s happening in [the rest of] the country, but it is painfully clear now that our village is in conflict, too.”

A large square separates Oktisi into two parts – down the hill lies the area where most Muslims live; further up, people are Christian Orthodox.

“The village is divided into two neighbourhoods, but that didn’t mean anything for how we lived together until recently,” said a grey-haired man named Budimir, as he looked out over the square. A Christian, he has lived in the village all his life.

“We all lived together. We went to each other’s weddings, funerals and birthdays and even celebrated each other’s religious events together,” he said. “Everything has changed because of the conflict over the church. It used to be really good living here, but until this problem gets resolved, there’s going to be no peaceful life in Oktisi.”

Down in the Muslim part of town, Fahrudin Sainoski stops to talk in front of the Gorna mosque.

“If they are going to build the church, it’s going to raise tensions in Oktisi even more, so I don’t want that,” he said. “No building – no tensions. I believe there will never be a church on that site, and everything will go back to normal again after a while.”

In Regep Kasaposki’s small coffee bar, customers agreed that building the church was an act of provocation.

“In this part of town we are all Muslims,” said Kasaposki. “The Christians live far from the place where they want to build their church. They already have churches up where they live, and now they want to build another one in a neighborhood where only Muslims live.”

Kasaposki added, “Of course I have protested against the church. Peacefully of course.”

After finishing his strong black Turkish coffee, customer Kerim Kerimoski left the café and led the way to the proposed building site. On an open, grassy space, iron bars rising out of the ground mark the spot where construction of foundations briefly began before protests put a halt to the work.

“To us, it feels like somebody wants to build a house inside our house,” Kerimoski said. “All the people who live around this field are Muslim.”

Nearby, a woman wearing a headscarf was hanging out her washing next to red peppers drying in the sun.

“There are tensions between Muslims and Christians now,” Kerimoski said. “This will be a very big conflict and will remain a problem for over 100 years if they actually build the church. We can’t allow that.”

At a coffee bar in the Christian part of town, run by Goran Gulicoski and Dimse Prçakoski, attitudes towards the church are very different.

“We definitely want the church to be built,” Gulicoski said. “There was a church on that spot in the past, so there will be a church there now. The name of the village, Oktisi, derives from Greek and means ‘eight churches’. Of course we don’t need eight churches – that’s too many. This is a historic site where there has always been a church. Let us build that church if we want to.”

The café owners agreed that tensions were rising in the village.

“Not all Muslims are against building the church. Only the ones with beards,” Prçakoski said. “We are waiting to see what happens now. It’s in the hands of the politicians. We want to resolve this problem peacefully, but it is going to be difficult to find a solution.”

One local businessman said all he wanted was for life in the village to go back to normal. As owner of a small convenience store that serves both communities, he opted to remain anonymous.

“I don’t pay attention to these tensions too much,” he said. “I’m Christian, but I regard myself as more of an atheist. People of both faiths do their shopping here, but the village has changed. For example, a lot of Muslims are stricter in their beliefs now. Before, there was never a problem between the two religions, and now there is one, because of a small building. It’s politics. I hope everything returns to normal soon.”

Stefan Heger, a journalist from The Netherlands who attended a recent IWPR master class in journalism in The Hague, produced this story on a subsequent trip to Macedonia.