MACEDONIA: Priests and police raid and threaten Serbian Orthodox believers
Nearly a hundred members of the Serbian Orthodox Church's (SOC) Archbishopric of Ohrid in Macedonia were questioned by police and searched, after they backed its failed registration application, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Some were threatened they would be kicked out of their jobs. Police also tried to pressure them to sign a declaration that they had left the SOC for the rival, government-backed Macedonian Orthodox Church. When police questioned church member Goran Bogatinoski in Prilep in early January, they asked him why he allowed SOC monks to stay in his house and why there were icons in his home. Father David of the SOC Ohrid Archbishopric complained to Forum 18 of a "new wave" of police intimidation launched last December. The Interior Ministry denies that police questioned anyone just for signing the registration application.
The head of the state religion committee, Cane Mojanovski, has vowed "never" to give the church registration (see F18News 4 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=505).
It appears that after the Archbishopric lodged its registration application, the religion committee passed a copy to Metropolitan Peter of the MOC. Priests of the MOC then visited about 30 families who signed the application, and following the MOC visits, police questioned and searched 97 people.
Goran Pavlovski, spokesperson of the Interior Ministry, denied to Forum 18 that police had questioned and searched the application signatories, insisting that they only questioned people "suspected of illegal acts". He also told Forum 18 from the Macedonian capital Skopje on 9 February that the situation of the Archbishopric of Ohrid "was given too big a meaning".
The Skopje office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined comment for now on the problems facing the SOC in Macedonia. "The OSCE is much concerned by the difficulties believers might face in the country," mission spokesperson Maxime Filandrov told Forum 18 from Skopje on 7 February. "We are doing work on this with the different stakeholders, mainly via our Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, but we would not go public on this issue at the moment in order not to 'overexpose' the ongoing efforts to find a solution."
In December 2004 and January 2005 police tried to pressure Riste Risteski from Prilep and his family into evicting SOC monks from a house inherited from his parents which he owns in the village of Lagovo. The monks had been expelled by police on 13 January 2004 from the MOC monastery of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God – Treskavec, near Prilep, after the monastery attempted to be reconciled with the SOC. The MOC is not recognised by any canonical Orthodox church in the world and monks who sought "canonical unity" with the Serbian Church have been expelled from their monasteries by police (see eg. F18News 13 January 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=228).
On Sunday 11 January 2004, police expelled nuns from the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God convent near Resen and from the St. Elijah – Chardak convent, as well as monks from the St. Demity – Marko's monastery near the capital Skopje.
Risteski told Forum 18 on 8 February that on the morning of 10 January 2005 he was taken from his home to Prilep police station. There he was interviewed for between 6 to 7 hours, his mobile phone was taken from him and he was denied any contact with a lawyer or his family. He said police also denied him food and water. Officers tried to get Risteski to sign a statement evicting the SOC monks and threatened that he would "have problems" because the monks are "Serbian spies who want to spread hatred between Serbs and Macedonians". After these threats, Risteski was taken to the house where the SOC monks are, which was searched without a warrant by police, and filmed. Although Risteski has legal documents proving ownership, the police threatened to destroy the house, and questioned Risteski about his property and finances.
On each of the next three days, Risteski was summoned to the police station, verbally threatened that he and his children would lose their jobs, and on the third day asked to sign a statement that he would not give the house to the Archbishopric of Ohrid. When Risteski asked that he be permitted to take the statement home and consult his lawyer, the police took the statement from him and have since left him alone.
Goran Bogatinoski from Prilep was also visited by police at the beginning of January 2005, as they wanted to question him why he allowed SOC monks to stay in his house, as well as why there were icons in his home. Bogatinoski was taken to the police station and threatened that "if he made people angry, people could stone his house and the police will not be able to help him". He was also threatened that the police would prevent him from getting work. In 2004, Bogatinoski had been questioned by police about who his friends were.
On 27 January 2005, police singled out the car of an SOC priest entering Macedonia for a detailed search and verbally insulted him. As the priest is a Macedonian citizen, he could not legally be refused entry. Similar border incidents, including refusal to allow SOC priests to travel through Macedonia on the way from Kosovo to Greece, took place in 2003 and 2004 (see F18News 24 July 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=113).
The Skopje-based Macedonian Helsinki Committee has noted that the state's active support for the Macedonian Orthodox Church is contrary to the constitution, restricts religious freedom, and calls into question the secular character of the state.
Among other incidents during 2004, Monika Dodova from Veles in central Macedonia was invited for an "informal talk" by police inspector Elica. Dodova told Forum 18 on 9 February that she is a philologist studying Latin and Classical Greek, and that Inspector Elica questioned her about why people study Greek, the names of her students and whether she discusses the SOC with them. Dodova refused to give the police her students' names. Later, in June 2004 on her way to the monastery of St. Prohor Pchinski in Serbia, where she was going to take part as a godmother in a baptismal service, police interrogated her closely. After Dodova returned from Serbia, Inspector Elica rang her to say that "she know that Dodova had travelled to Serbia and why."
Also in 2004, the Macedonian parliament passed a resolution supporting "the autocephalous status and the unity of the Macedonian Orthodox Church" (see F18News 28 January 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=238) and a paramilitary "state security" unit attacked an SOC monastery with machine guns (see F18News 24 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=259). The monastery was subsequently demolished by workers helped by about 500 police armed with machine guns (see F18News http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=437).
Metropolitan Jovan, the head of the SOC Archbishopric of Ohrid, is awaiting the results of an appeal against an 18 month jail sentence imposed on him (see F18News 4 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=505). (END)
A printer-friendly map of Macedonia is available from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=macedo
Note that the formally recognised name of Macedonia in international law is "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia".
4 February 2005
The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Metropolitan Jovan (Vranisskovski), has told Forum 18 News Service that he is challenging in the Supreme Court the government's refusal to register the Archbishopric of Ohrid. Without registration, the Archbishopric cannot own any church buildings or other property, maintain a bank account or receive permission to build churches. "Although the Constitutional court has ruled that people can gather in private homes for worship, the police do not always share that opinion," Metropolitan Jovan told Forum 18. "Basically, the police can break up any private meeting and arrest believers and priests if they want. For them without registration the Archbishopric of Ohrid is an illegal organisation." The government also claimed against Metropolitan Jovan that "only citizens of Macedonia can organise a religious group", ignoring the fact that he is a Macedonian citizen. It is notable that neither the Catholic Church nor the Methodist Church have had this claim used against them by the Macedonian government.
10 November 2004
The KFOR peace-keeping force needs to defend the Serbian population and its Orthodox churches more effectively, a military chaplain, who prefers not to be identified, argues from personal experience of the violence in Kosovo in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The chaplain believes that international organisations naively did not understand the minds of the people of the region – and so did not understand what was necessary to provide religious freedom. The international community needs to state clearly that independence will not be granted until minorities have full rights and security. The big challenge is changing people's mentality before independence can be considered – and this requires a long-term commitment to genuine peace and genuine justice from both Albanian politicians and the international community.
21 October 2004
A Macedonian government official, Dr Cane Mojanovski, has refused to confirm or deny to Forum 18 News Service reports that the government intends to demolish the Serbian Orthodox Church in the village of Luzani. The reports follow the surprise night-time destruction of the St John Chrysostom Monastery in Nizepole, southern Macedonia – which contained Metropolitan Jovan (Vranisskovski) and about 10 monks and nuns – by approximately 500 police armed with automatic weapons, and demolition workers with bulldozers. The monastery was the cathedral of the Archbishopric of Ohrid, and was earlier this year attacked by a paramilitary 'state security' unit armed with machine guns. Officials in Bitola have refused to discuss the monastery demolition with Forum 18. Metropolitan Jovan is separately being threatened with an 18 month jail sentence, and told Forum 18 that he expects his appeal against the sentence will be turned down.