Macedonia: Religious Dispute Escalates

Skopje and Belgrade are struggling to prevent a religious dispute from spilling over into the public and political arena.

Macedonia: Religious Dispute Escalates

Skopje and Belgrade are struggling to prevent a religious dispute from spilling over into the public and political arena.

A long-running dispute between the Serbian and Macedonian Orthodox churches has been inflamed by a row over an historic tablet marking the latter republic's statehood.


Senior Serbian church officials have rejected calls from their government to return the stone, which marked the creation of the Macedonian state within Yugoslavia on August 2, 1944, and is was traditionally held in the Serbian monastery Prohor Pcinjski.


They claim that unless Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, personnel are allowed to move freely within Macedonia, the latter's clerical leaders will not be permitted to visit Prohor Pcinjski to conduct an anniversary service.


The commemorative stone is hugely important to the Macedonia, as it represents the continuity of statehood. It was violently torn from its place in the monastery by Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj in 1998.


Skopje first called for its return as part of preparations to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising against the Turks, which also took place on August 2.


Belgrade agreed with Skopje's request and asked the SPC to replace the stone so that a Macedonian delegation would visit the monastery on the anniversary.


But Serbian clergy have refused to do so, following two incidents on Macedonian soil that have caused further damage to relations between the two churches.


On July 16, the Belgrade media had reported that several SPC priests had been stopped at the border with Macedonia, and prevented from entering the republic.


The daily newspaper Utrinski Vesnik claimed that "the MPC knew that the SPC priests wanted to hold a service in the country and therefore asked the government to deny entry to the priests in order to prevent incidents"


But Macedonian government officials said that police were merely following procedures, as priests need either an official invitation from the MPC or a document proving that they are merely transiting through the country.


The dispute between the two Orthodox churches has been simmering for a number of decades. The MPC declared its autocephaly - ecclesiastic independence - in 1967, a move that was broadly encouraged by the then communist regime as a means of strengthening the republic's identity.


But the SPC, which formerly controlled the Macedonian dioceses, resisted the move, and Macedonian autocephaly has never been recognised by Orthodox churches elsewhere.


Last year, the SPC suggested abolishing the Macedonian church's autocephalous status, making it an autonomous entity within the Serbian church.


However, a public outcry forced the MPC to reject the deal. Only one bishop, Jovan, accepted the proposal - and he was promptly stripped of his rank, although he has since declared his family home to be his "church". In May of this year, Serbian clerics named Jovan as an archbishop of the autonomous Ohrid Archbishopric, as the SPC now proclaims it.


The second damaging incident this month took place only four days after the Serbian priests were stopped at the border. Jovan was arrested on July 20 after he tried to perform a baptism in a regular church, and spent five days in prison as a result.


A senior government official told IWPR that "the timing of the these incidents - the priests at the border and Jovan storming into a church when he knows he is not allowed to - seems like provocation. This way, the SPC can bargain with us for the tablet".


The incidents upped the stakes in the ecclesiastical row, with Serbian bishop Pahomije of Vranje telling the Macedonian daily Dnevnik, "There will be no celebration of Ilinden in the monastery of Prohor Pcinjski, before your government withdraws the decision that Serbian priests are not allowed to enter the country." He also protested the decision to arrest Jovan, who was released after serving his five-day sentence.


These statements provoked angry reactions in Macedonia, where both Jovan`s arrest and the border incident were seen as an attempt by the SPC to prevent an amicable agreement between the two governments.


In an attempt to resolve the dispute, the Serbian authorities have held meetings with top church officials trying to persuade them to allow the Macedonian ceremony to go ahead with the stone in its rightful place.


And the Serbian department for protection of monuments wrote a letter to the SPC demanding that the plaque be returned to the monastery.


However, both attempts have so far failed, as the SPC has the final say on all property belonging to the church.


Serbia's deputy prime minister Zarko Korac told the media that talks were ongoing. "I am sure that both Belgrade and Skopje want to maintain good relations," he said. "Our stance - and we have said this before - is that all such symbols removed by violence have to be returned."


His views were echoed in Skopje, with government spokesperson Saso Colakovski telling IWPR that the Macedonian authorities were fully committed to stopping this dispute from spilling over into the public or political arena. "There is a lot of good will within both governments to resolve this issue," he said.


Zoran Bojarovski is an editor with Forum magazine in Skopje


Macedonia, Serbia
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