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Macedonia: A Holy Row

Maverick bishop accused of colluding with attempts by Greek and Serbian religious nationalists to emasculate the Macedonian church
By Zoran Bojarovski

A Macedonian bishop has been accused of treason after deciding to accept the authority of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch over that of Macedonia's own Orthodox church.


Jovan of Veles and Povardarie is the first Macedonian bishop so far to accept an offer made to all Macedonian bishops on June 19, in which Patriarch Pavle urged them to accept autonomous status within his church.


By accepting the offer, the Macedonian public believe the bishop is colluding with Greek and Serbian religious nationalists' attempts to emasculate the Macedonian church by negating its autocephalous status.


"Bishop Jovan's attempt to separate part of the Macedonian church and merge it with the Serbian church is the first step in a hellish plan by the Serbophile and his mentors," raged the editor of the daily Dnevnik, Branko Gerovski. Autocephaly, which amounts to ecclesiastical independence, has a significance that transcends the clergy and the faithful - an independent Macedonian church is seen as an essential part of the country's nationhood.


Patriarch Pavle's appeal followed the failure of a draft agreement signed by commissions from both the Macedonian and Serbian churches in Nis on May 17. The draft, which was subject to acceptance by the synods of both churches, proposed abolition of the autocephalous status of the Macedonian church, in exchange for autonomous status within the Serbian church.


The Serbian synod accepted the draft, but its Macedonian counterpart rejected it. Like Bishop Jovan, Petar of Australia and New Zealand, Timotej of Ohrid and Kicevo and Naum of Strumica had supported the draft, but unlike him they accepted the decision of the synod and ignored Patriarch Pavle's overtures. Archbishop Stefan of Ohrid, the head of the Macedonian church, has maintained a neutral position throughout.


The status of the Macedonian church has long been a contentious issue within Orthodoxy. Encouraged by the communist authorities, the church unilaterally declared itself autocephalous in 1967. It had not previously enjoyed autonomous status within the Serbian church, although an offer of temporary autonomy was hastily made in an attempt to stave off the declaration of autocephaly.


Then, bishops rejected the offer of temporary autonomy in favour of autocephalous status, which has never been recognised by the other Orthodox churches.


Today's dispute is becoming acrimonious. Those who rejected the draft from the start, including Kiril of Polog and Kumanovo, Agatangel of Bregalnica, point out that the pro-autonomy bishops all share a Greek or Serbian background. Petar and Timotej were educated at the Belgrade Orthodox Faculty of Theology, while Naum was a monk on Mount Athos.


Bishop Jovan, who has a black belt in karate, attended the Thessalonika Faculty of Theology. He was immediately made a bishop in the Macedonian church after his return from Greece in 1996 and maintains close relations with a number of eminent Greek theologians. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on the question of autonomous and autocephalous status within the Orthodox canon.


Bishop Jovan insists his decision was based solely on theology. "I concluded that now is the right moment (to accept autonomous status)," he said in a statement to Bitola television on June 26. "Some are accusing me of national treason and that may be so, but as a bishop of the holy church I cannot place national interests before spiritual ones. While the church may recognise a nation, that always comes second."


"The canons of the church are one thing and the feelings of the people are another," retorted Professor Gorgi Marijanovic in his daily Dnevnik column. "In a situation where Greece even disputes the legitimacy of our name, people are understandably outraged by Bishop Jovan's move."


This is not the first time Bishop Jovan has upset his flock. In 2000, he was removed from the Bregalnica diocese after his inflexible attitude to ritual and his insistence on conducting part of the liturgy in Greek upset the local faithful. Clergy from Bregalnica have since claimed in the Macedonian media that Bishop Jovan frequently entertained Zoran Janackovic, a former head of Serbian state security, who became ambassador to Skopje in 1992.


On June 25, 3-4000 believers in the Veles and Povardarie diocese attended a rally to oppose the bishop. "He is trying to sell us out to the Serbs. If he separates from all the other believers, it is a sign he wants to increase his own influence," said retired teacher Liljana Petrova, who addressed the rally.


"Now, in order to claim he has more support, he wants to bus people in to Veles to attend the Sunday liturgy at St. Pantelejmon Church. If this persists, I'm afraid it could have unpleasant consequences, as people here are very irritated by the bishop's behaviour."


However, at the celebration of the liturgy the following Sunday, Bishop Jovan showed no sign of backing down. He declared himself a martyr and compared himself with the Orthodox saints Atanasij the Great and Vasilij the Great. New protests are reportedly being planned in his diocese.


Wary of a looming schism, Archbishop Stefan and the other six bishops have so far made no comment. Behind the scenes, the synod of the Macedonian church is doing its best to diffuse the dispute.


At a secret meeting held at an undisclosed address outside Skopje on June 26, Bishop Petar of Australia and New Zealand, who originally brought Jovan into the Macedonian church, was given the task of bringing his former protege and "renegade" bishop back into the fold.


However, campaigners for autocephaly note that with the recognition of other Orthodox churches withheld since 1967, their struggle is still incomplete. For them, Bishop Jovan's move is just another tussle in a long war.


Zoran Bojarovski is an editor with Forum Magazine in Skopje.