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Will Macedonia's Orthodox Church Also Break Away?

A Macedonian Orthodox believer lights candles outside the St. Mother of God church in Skopje, Macedonia, in August 2017.
A Macedonian Orthodox believer lights candles outside the St. Mother of God church in Skopje, Macedonia, in August 2017.

Deep concerns have emerged within the Serbian Orthodox Church over a move by the leadership of Orthodox Christianity toward recognizing the Ukrainian church's independence from Moscow.

The reasons for concern go beyond the Serbian Patriarchate's historical and political ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which announced on October 15 it was severing ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople over its recent decree on recognition of the autocephaly the Ukrainian church.

The Serbian Patriarchate has its own decades-old disputes with unrecognized breakaway churches in Macedonia and Montenegro -- territory long considered by the Constantinople Patriarchate, the spiritual leadership of the world's Orthodox Christians, as the domain of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Serbian Church officials say they fear the Constantinople Patriarchate's decree on Ukraine will be followed by recognition of the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Bishop Irinej Bulovic, a spokesman for the Serbian Church, says there is "a real danger" new divisions will emerge in the aftermath of the Ukraine decision and fracture unity across the Orthodox Christian world.

In an interview with the Belgrade daily newspaper Politika, Bishop Irinej predicted the split would be "even bigger and harder" than the East-West Schism of 1054 that institutionally separated Christianity into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Decision Time

Miroslav Kavezdi, an expert in Serbia on religious affairs, told RFE/RL that Orthodox patriarchates in the Balkans and around the world must now decide whether to continue honoring the leadership of the Constantinople Patriarchate or follow the Russian Church's lead and cut ties with the 1,600-year-old institution.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I, has honorary and historical supremacy over the world's other Orthodox patriarchs.

He is considered to have spiritual and official precedence as "first among equals," but does not have the right to intervene in the religious affairs of other patriarchates.

Kavezdi says the process each patriarchate goes through will entail a lengthy reexamination of canon law on the issue of whether the Constantinople Patriarchate -- one of the world's most enduring institutions -- has jurisdiction to change the status quo in other partriarchates.

"A lot of things have not been elaborated," Kavezdi told RFE/RL. "There will be a long, tedious but necessary process of clarifying what is actually happening."

There is "concern among those who are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church because some solutions that are reflected in Ukraine in the status of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate [one of the three Orthodox churches in Ukraine] could be applied" to the cases of the breakaway churches in Macedonia and Montenegro, Kavezdi said.

Conversely, Kavezdi says the Ukraine decision has bolstered hopes for the recognition of other breakaway churches.

In the face of those challenges, Bishop Irinej insists the Serbian Orthodox Church is committed to "respecting the canonical order of the past millennium."

But that position leaves open the question of whether the Serbian Patriarchate would continue to honor the authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate if it were to move toward granting independence to breakaway churches.

The Moscow Patriarchate weighed in on the issue at an October 15 synod in Minsk led by Patriarch Kirill of Russia, an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Having held jurisdiction over Ukraine since the late 1600s, the Russian Church announced that the Constantinople Patriarchate has "excluded itself from the canonical field of the Orthodoxy" with "lawless and canonically void moves" on Ukraine.

Historic Feud Over Macedonian Church

The Constantinople Patriarchate has been examining a request to recognize the breakaway Macedonian Orthodox Church since May 2018.

The split goes back a half century to 1967, when the autonomous Macedonian Orthodox Church proclaimed independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Serbian Patriarchate responded by denouncing the move and labeling the Macedonian clergy as schismatic.

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Since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Serbian Church has tried to restore its control in Macedonia.

The breakaway Macedonian Church, which remains unrecognized by any Orthodox patriarchate, sees the efforts by the Serbian Church as being closely linked with the agenda of Serbia's government.

Funded by the Macedonian state, the breakaway Macedonian Church claims jurisdiction over eight dioceses and more than 1,000 churches across the country -- including the historic Archbishopric Of Ohrid established on Lake Ohrid in 1019, and hundreds of medieval Serb Orthodox shrines.

The breakaway church also claims jurisdiction over hundreds of thousands of ethnic Macedonian emigrants and their descendants around the world who form the Macedonian diaspora.

Since being elected in 1999 as the head of the breakaway Macedonian Church, Archbishop Stefan has lobbied politicians for support in the feud with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Meanwhile, the Serbian Patriarchate has tried to regain its control over Macedonian diocese since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

It considers a competing branch that falls under the umbrella of the Serbian Orthodox Church as the only legitimate Macedonian Church, and it recognizes a Serb Orthodox bishop, Jovan Vraniskovski, as the legitimate leader.

The Serbian Patriarchate in 2005 appointed Jovan as Archbishop of Ohrid and Metropolitan of Skopje.

But Macedonia's state commission on religion recognizes Stefan's breakaway church and refuses to register Jovan's Serbian-backed Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric.

Authorities in Skopje also have expelled Jovan and his supporters from his former Metropolitanate, jailing the Serbian Orthodox bishop several times on charges ranging from disturbing the peace, resisting police, instigating ethnic and religious hatred, and embezzlement.

Jovan said shortly before the Ukraine decision that he was skeptical about the Constantinople Patriarchate ever granting independence to his rivals in the breakaway Macedonian Church.

Jovan said that "no one can take away" the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church over Macedonia "because it would create very big problems and would be unprincipled."

But Bishop Timotej, a spokesman for the synod of the unrecognized Macedonian Orthodox Church, told RFE/RL that the process of recognition remains "open."

Timotej says he expects the dispute to be resolved through the Constantinople Patriarchate.

"This will mean that the Macedonian Orthodox Church will be recognized by most of the Orthodox churches as an equal Orthodox church that can communicate on an equal footing with other Orthodox nations and churches," Timotej said.

"Whether the Serbian Orthodox Church or others agree with such a decision should not disturb us too much," Timotej said.

But some analysts see the Macedonian Church's battle for recognition as part of geopolitical positioning in efforts between Russia and the West -- with the Russian Orthodox Church increasing its pressure on other churches.

Protodeacon Andrei Kurayev, a prominent Russian Orthodox theologian, told RFE/RL on October 16 that he expects "Moscow diplomats, both those in religious robes and secular ones, will impose pressure on other churches to support Moscow."

"None of them will be ready to jump from a window if Moscow asks them to do so," Kurayev said. "None of them will break their ties with Constantinople.

Meanwhile, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says he expects a resolution to the Macedonia-Serbia dispute soon.

Zaev told RFE/RL that the Constantinople Patriarchate's decision on Ukraine encourages the competing churches to look at the issue through the prism of "friendship and cooperation" in the interest of worshippers.

Written by Ron Synovitz with reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan and Belarus Services.

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