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

Religious Strife Fuels Macedonian Conflict

Relations between Orthodox and Muslim representatives in Macedonia have collapsed in a further sign of the deepening conflict.
By Veton Latifi

The armed conflict in Macedonia risks taking on a new dimension as the heads of the country's largest religious communities sling insults at one another.


"When the freedom and defence of our people cannot be achieved with other means," wrote Patriarch Stefan, the spiritual head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, MOC, in an open letter on June 21, "then we should get rid of those who endanger our lives and who are trying to split our homeland."


Stefan was referring to the National Liberation Army, NLA, who were at that time occupying Aracinovo, a mainly Albanian village on the outskirts of Skopje, within mortar range of the capital's international airport.


The MOC and Islamic Community of Macedonia, ICM, which represents the country's Muslims, had been working together to devise a peaceful way out of the military impasse in the country.


On June 13, after meeting in Morges, Switzerland, the two groups issued a joint appeal - co-signed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community and the Methodist Church - for peace and dialogue. In the communique, the MOC and ICM said they were in agreement "that common elements in different religions should serve as a basis for understanding and joint actions for peace..."


But a day after the statement was published, Macedonia's security forces launched a major offensive against Aracinovo, breaking the cease-fire brokered by EU Special Envoy Javier Solana in late June.


Patriarch Stefan's June 21st response infuriated the ICM, which, in turn, accused the MOC of fomenting a civil war. "The MOC's latest letter is an appeal to inter-ethnic and inter-religious war - it breaks all religious principles, " said an ICM statement, which insisted that the MOC would be held responsible if any civilians or members of the security forces are killed.


The MOC did not immediately respond. But the same day Patriarch Stefan held an emergency meeting with President Boris Trajkovski. He asked for reassurances that the constitution would not be changed in favour of the Albanian minority and that NLA fighters would be driven out of the territory they occupy.


The debate over the constitution is at the root of the current friction between the MOC and the ICM. Orthodox leaders say it is inappropriate to talk of changing it "at a time when territories and citizens are in danger".


A week before, political leaders from both ethnic groups met President Trajkovski in Skopje to discuss what constitutional changes were needed to improve Albanians' rights and slow the descent into civil war. One issue on which all the parties agreed was the need to reflect the equality of all religions in Macedonia. The current constitution, dating from 1991, underlines the leading role of the MOC.


Until the Albanian insurrection erupted in February, Macedonia's two main religious groups were more concerned with their own problems than each other. The ICM, which brings together Albanians and the Macedonian Muslim minority in an uneasy alliance, is beset with internal divisions.


More crucially, the MOC has not been able to win recognition as an independent church from its counterparts in Greece and Serbia. That failure, analysts say, reflects these countries' unresolved concerns over Macedonia's continuing existence as a sovereign state.


Another problem facing the MOC and the ICM is that both function as the religious wings of the different political and ethnic groups they represent. This puts them in a weak position when it comes to playing a more active role in negotiating an end to the violence that has afflicted Macedonia for the past five months.


The latest exchange of insults narrows the ability of the MOC and ICM to work for peace, while signalling that the conflict may be on the point of acquiring a confessional dimension. There have been a number of incidents in recent months in which religious affiliation played a disquieting role.


After the NLA killed four members of the security forces in February, youths in Kriva Palanka in the north east - where two of the dead soldiers came from - stoned buses carrying Muslims returning home after completing their pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.


And at Tetovo castle, the scene of some of the worst inter-ethnic fighting last March, Macedonians built an imposing Orthodox cross close to a Muslim Albanian village. The authorities argued that it was their religious and historic right to do so, despite local protests.


Over the past few months, the Macedonian media have reported that ethnic Albanian clerics in some areas have joined the NLA, while others offered their logistical support. The Albanian-language media, meanwhile, accused Orthodox priests of joining the army and police.


It appears, then, that the Morges agreement, signed so hopefully in Switzerland last month, has become another victim of the conflict.


Veton Latifi is a political analyst and IWPR editorial assistant in Macedonia