Pro-Serb Revolt Rocks Macedonian Church

Government steps into to detain rebel clergy as fears grow that church row may undermine national unity.

Pro-Serb Revolt Rocks Macedonian Church

Government steps into to detain rebel clergy as fears grow that church row may undermine national unity.

Macedonia's parliament has offered to publicly back Macedonian Orthodox Church leaders as they battle a rebellion that threatens to reawaken awkward questions about the country’s identity.

Determined to stop a damaging split within the Orthodox church, parliament is drafting a declaration in support of leading clerics in their conflict with about 30 monks.

These rebels have vowed to leave the Macedonian church and join a renegade bishop, Zoran Vraniskovski, who advocates returning the institution to Serbian control.

The declaration is expected to be adopted this week and aims to demonstrate the state's resolve to uphold the unity and independence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Vraniskovski, whose religious title is Bishop Jovan, was arrested along with several well-known monks while holding a service in his flat in Bitola on January 11. The monks were released but Bishop Jovan remains detained.

The authorities have defended their action, saying they are investigating charges of inciting religious hatred.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have called for his immediate release, supported predictably by the Serbian and Greek churches.

The public was shocked to learn that two high-profile monks were among those found in the Bitola raid, as they were seen as Macedonian church loyalists and potential bishops.

Their action has raised the spectre of further divisions within the Macedonian church, with other monasteries joining the pro-Serbian faction.

The Macedonian church declared autocephaly, or ecclesiastic independence, from the Serbian church in 1967 in a move that was co-ordinated with the communist authorities in order to bolster Macedonia’s identity within the Yugoslav federation.

The Serbian church protested and Macedonian autocephaly has not been recognised by Orthodox leaders elsewhere.

To solve the issue, the Serbian church in 2002 suggested that its Macedonian counterpart should accept semi-autonomous status under Belgrade. A public outcry forced Macedonia’s religious leaders to reject this.

Only Bishop Jovan, then bishop of the southern town of Veles, accepted the Serb proposal. After removal from office, Serbian clerics inflamed the row last May by designating him as their own Archbishop of Ohrid.

Sources close to the governing synod of the Macedonian church told IWPR they were not overly concerned about Jovan's stance until about one-third of the country's monks came out in support of him before his arrest.

Their breakaway raised the fears of further division within the Church, and the possibility of other monasteries going over to the Serbian-backed Ohrid Archbishopric, effectively creating a parallel church.

With Bulgaria refusing to recognise Macedonian as an independent language and Greece continuing to insist on use of the cumbersome title Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM, as Greece`s northern province carries the name Macedonia, the last thing the Skopje government wants is further doubts over the status of the national church.

Many Macedonian analysts see the hand of Greece behind the church debate. They say that the Serbian Orthodox Church depended heavily on Greek funding during the wars of the 1990s and that Athens is believed to be putting pressure on Belgrade to stop the emergence of a truly independent church in Macedonia. This view is contested in Serbia and Greece.

Over the past decade, the Skopje authorities have taken a back seat in ecclesiastical affairs. But the government now faces pressure to act amid fears that Macedonian church may disintegrate.

Macedonia's Social-Democrat prime minister, Branko Crvenkovski, vowed his administration would continue to back an independent church in "response to interference in the internal affairs of Macedonia coming from abroad".

A source from the ruling Social Democrats said the government took the threat to the Church seriously. “This is the first time that the state has reacted with repressive means, and it has put Jovan behind bars to defend the unity of the Macedonian church,” he said.

The source noted that questioning the independence of the Macedonian church was not simply an ecclesiastical matter but touched sensitive political issues, such as the dispute with Greece over the country's name.

“We had to step in as the church seems incapable of sorting out its own problems. If this split were to escalate, it would reopen the whole debate on Macedonia`s identity,” he said.

The rebel monks blame the Church leadership for the crisis, saying acceptance of the Ohrid Archbishopric might end Macedonia's decades-long isolation within the Orthodox world.

Fr David, one of the high-profile monks found at Jovan's apartment, told IWPR that their motive was unhappiness with Macedonia`s religious leadership.

He accused church authorities of neglecting the monasteries and of viewing congregations as a source of money.

The Church Synod, he said, saw monasteries "only as property and as assets that should make money and not as spiritual centres”.

"If the synod gets the strength to openly discuss the church's internal problems and if some of its members withdraw from their posts, that could open the door to a possible solution of the problem," Fr David said, adding that he opposed the existence of parallel churches in Macedonia.

Clerical officials have declined to discuss the rebel monks, beyond calling their actions “treason”. But a senior church source admitted to IWPR that the crisis might force changes in the leadership.

The government is reluctant to become further involved and wants the Church to deal with the issue while Bishop Jovan`s case is left to the courts.

But parliament's public show of support for the Church, and the fact that the interior ministry stands behind one of the charges against Bishop Jovan, suggests the government may have to stay involved in what could become a drawn-out dispute.

Zoran Bojarovski is deputy editor at the bi-weekly Forum magazine.

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