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Macedonian-Serbian Church Dispute Enters New Round

The long-standing feud between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church entered a new round in early January, just before Orthodox Christmas, when the leaders of each Church decided that talks would do no good.

In their respective addresses to believers on 5 January both Patriarch Pavle, who leads the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), and Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC) head Archbishop Gospodin Gospodin Stefan, signaled that renewed talks between the two churches do not make much sense, at least for the time being.

The church leaders' pessimistic view is mainly due to the failure to resolve the question as to whether the MPC is an autocephalous church of its own. Having gained what the SPC describes as a "far-reaching autonomy" in 1959, the MPC split from the SPC in 1967 without the consent of the Serbian Holy Synod. As a result, the MPC was never recognized by other Orthodox Churches.

Bilateral talks to resolve this question resulted in the so-called Nis accord of July 2002, which could have been a basis for further discussion had it not been rejected by the majority of Macedonian bishops. The main obstacle for the MPC's Holy Synod to accept the agreement was that the SPC insisted on the canonic unity of the two churches.

But one Macedonian bishop, Jovan of Veles, did not follow his colleagues and instead put his bishopric under the canonic jurisdiction of the Serbian Church. In response, the MPC's Holy Synod excommunicated Jovan. The SPC, in turn, named him Serbian exarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Macedonia in September 2002. Macedonian media call Jovan either by his former lay name, Zoran Vraniskovski, or simply "the schismatic" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2002, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 July 2002).

For his move Vraniskovski was not only outlawed by his church and the media, but also by the Macedonian authorities. After what the SPC described as a "manipulated trial" in October 2003, a court in Bitola found him guilty of "usurping an office" and sentenced him to one year in prison, suspended in favor of two-years' probation. His crime was that he had baptized a relative despite having been excommunicated from the MPC.

The churches, for their part, carried on trading accusations instead of seeking some kind of compromise. In May 2003, the SPC set up an autonomous Archbishopric of Ohrid, naming Bishop Jovan as its head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2003). In his 5 January address, MPC Archbishop Gospodin Gospodin Stefan charged that by setting up this autonomous archbishopric, the SPC has greatly disturbed the "spiritual peace" of the Macedonian believers. He added that in such a situation the MPC will concentrate on its own "spiritual renewal" to strengthen it against further "challenges and evils."

Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, for his part, the same day called on the "brothers and sisters in Macedonia" to unite around the newly founded Archbishopric of Ohrid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2004).

Only days later, on 11 January, police again detained Bishop Jovan and a group of clerics belonging to the SPC in Bitola. At first, the Interior Ministry declared that neighbors had called the police because the clerics had threatened them with weapons. But the same day a Bitola court officially charged Bishop Jovan with inciting national and religious hatred and intolerance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 15 January 2004).

In the meantime, Macedonian politicians also joined in the church dispute. Whereas Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski tried to remain neutral by expressing his hope that the feud will not affect Macedonia's relations with Serbia and Montenegro, President Boris Trajkovski -- himself a Protestant minister -- clearly took sides with the MPC. "The formation of a parallel Holy Synod for...Macedonia by the Serbian Orthodox Church is an attack not only on the Macedonian autocephalous Orthodox Church, but also a direct attack on the sovereignty of...Macedonia and on the national feelings of the Macedonian people," a joint statement by Trajkovski and Archbishop Gospodin Gospodin Stefan said in December.

In January, Trajkovski refused to intervene on Bishop Jovan's behalf when Patriarch Pavle asked him to do so. Currently, the opposition Internal Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), which sees itself in the tradition of European Christian Democratic parties, is preparing a parliamentary declaration in support of the MPC. Since the MPC is explicitly mentioned in the constitution along with four other religious communities, politicians may argue that they are not only defending the church, but also the constitution. But this constitutional provision also restricts religious freedom, human rights activist Mirjana Najcevska of the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights noted in "Dnevnik" on 10 January.

It is not yet clear whether the governing Social Democrats will also endorse the declaration. The country's ethnic Albanians -- who are overwhelmingly Muslim -- and their parties have declined to get involved in the church dispute, as was to be expected.

Written by Ulrich Buechsenschutz