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Church Rivalry Threatens to Brim Over

Jailing of Macedonian bishop for identifying with the Serbian church set to further bedevil cross-border relations.
By Zelimir Bojovic

The recent sentencing of a Macedonian bishop who has aligned himself with the Serbian Orthodox church has the potential to escalate into full-blown tensions between the neighbouring states, observers say.

Jovan Vraniskovski received a two-and-a-half-year prison term on July 27 after being found guilty of defaming the Macedonian Orthodox church and harming the religious feelings of local citizens.

His crime was to distribute Serbian Orthodox church calendars and pamphlets.

There have been tensions between the two countries’ respective clergies since the Macedonians split from the Serbian church in 1967 to declare themselves a self-governing component of the broader Orthodox church.

Vraniskovski first gained notoriety in Macedonia in 2002 after he backed a proposal for the Macedonian church to abandon its independence in return for broad autonomy within the Serbian institution.

The bishop’s current jail term, which he is serving in the Idrizovo prison near Skopje, includes a 12-month suspended sentence he received last year after declaring that his flat in Bitolj was a church – and that it came under the jurisdiction of the Serbian church.

Vraniskovski had also been arrested and held in detention for five days back in 2003 for trying to christen a child according to Serbian church procedures.

But with the latest court ruling, the affair shows signs of escalating. And observers say this time it threatens to spill over into politics and economics.

Following his disgrace in 2002, Vraniskovski – who as bishop of Veles was the youngest bishop in Macedonia at the time – was banished from the Macedonian church together with several of his followers. The Serbian church retaliated by appointing Vraniskovski its exarch in Macedonia, a high rank in the Orthodox hierarchy, immediately below the position of patriarch or church leader.

Vraniskovski was subsequently labelled a “traitor”, a “Serbian servant” and a “fool” by the Macedonian media and clergy, and has even faced the threat of public lynching.

Apostasy from the local church is widely seen as a sign of disloyalty to the Macedonian nation, and many people here are supportive of the jail term handed down to Vraniskovski.

“Vraniskovski’s efforts to set up a parallel church in Macedonia basically come down to an attempt to destroy the Macedonian Orthodox Church,” said one man interviewed in Skopje.

Many senior politicians on both sides have reacted cautiously to this latest twist in the clerical war.

Serbian president Boris Tadic, for his part, has insisted that the affair must not be allowed to undermine his country’s relations with Macedonia. “This is not an issue that the state of Serbia should interfere with, as that would be meddling in somebody else's political and judicial processes,” he said.

Instead, Tadic argues that European institutions like the OSCE and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights should intervene in the affair.

The Macedonian Helsinki Committee has condemned Vraniskovski’s arrest and has said that the state, in defending the interests of the church, has acted contrary to the secular principles on which it is founded.

Macedonian leaders have also been keen to distance themselves from the affair. Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, after discussing the affair with his Serbian counterpart Vojislav Kostunica at a meeting in Salzburg, insisted that “there is a limit to what we can do”.

Macedonia’s president Branko Crvenkovski has taken a tougher line, arguing that politicians have no say in such court verdicts but that if the decision displeases politicians in Belgrade, it is ultimately a Macedonian affair.

“We are not talking about a member of the Serbian minority in Macedonia,” he said. “We are talking about someone… whose aim is not to protect the religious feelings of Serbs in Macedonia but to substitute and negate the Macedonian Orthodox Church.”

Some senior Belgrade figures have also taken a strong stance on the matter.

Serbian prime minister Kostunica insisted after the Salzburg meeting that, “The only solution is to set Bishop Jovan free as soon as possible. If we drag our feet… the problems between the two states will only get worse.”

“This is the time to bare our teeth,” Serbia’s investment minister Velimir Ilic told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, when asked about Vraniskovski’s prison sentence. “What's happening in Macedonia is becoming unbearable and cannot be tolerated any more.”

“No one can treat with contempt the church that I believe in, and particularly its dignitaries,” he added.

Ilic has already shown that he is ready to back up such words with economic measures. On August 2, he ordered Belgrade airport to block the release of two Boeing 737 passenger planes that Serbia’s airline JAT has long rented out to the Macedonian national carrier MAT.

Officially, the decision was said to have been taken because MAT owes JAT 7.5 million US dollars. But the action has generally been viewed as retaliation against the Macedonian government for its refusal to get Vraniskovski released.

Many Serbs appear to support Ilic’s fiery take on the issue.

“The thought that a Serbian Orthodox priest is in jail is horrifying,” one female Belgrade resident told BCR. “If they don’t set Bishop Jovan free, Serbia should break off all relations with Macedonia.”

But Vlatko Sekulovic, Serbia’s deputy minister for foreign economic relations, told BCR that such tit-for-tat behaviour could have unwelcome consequences.

“Macedonia is the fourth biggest market for Serbian exports,” he said, explaining that Belgrade’s annual trade surplus with Macedonia amounts to more than 100 million dollars. “If that's not important, then I don't know what is.”

“If we continue with blackmail, boycotts of goods, or other inappropriate measures, this may have serious economic repercussions,” he warned.

In the meantime, Macedonia has decided not to hold the celebrations for most important annual holiday, the August 2 anniversary of the 1903 Ilinden rising, at the Prohor Pcinjski monastery in Serbia, as is customary. Instead, the authorities have moved the event to a memorial site in northern Macedonia.

The church in Serbia is busy rallying international support for Vraniskovski’s case. In an open letter, it has urged governments and non-governmental organisations to protest to Macedonia and to complain to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Ferid Muhic, a philosophy professor in Skopje, told BCR he fears the affair has the potential to drag on for some time to come.

“This case will only be closed by the release of Vraniskovski from prison,” he said. “But that might happen in an atmosphere of deteriorating relations and damaged political cooperation between the two countries.”

Zelimir Bojovic is a Belgrade-based contributor to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), IWPR’s partner in the Balkans, and a correspondent for Deutsche Welle Radio. Tamara Causidis is assistant editor with BIRN Macedonia.