Bulgaria Refuses to Extradite Rebel Macedonia Priest
- On Tuesday the Sofia Court of Appeals overturned the sentence of the Sofia District Court, which earlier ruled that Vraniskovski should be returned to Macedonia. The judges also decided to lift a ban prohibiting the priest from leaving the country and free him from home custody.
The court’s decision is final and cannot be appealed. The reasoning behind the ruling, meanwhile, will be made public in two days.
Vraniskovski, who is recognised as a bishop by the Serbian Orthodox Church, was arrested in Bulgaria last Novermber on an international warrant issued by Interpol. Macedonian authorities requested his extradition after a local court in 2009 sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for the abuse of church money while he was as a cleric in Macedonia.
He has been the focus of a dispute between the Macedonian Orthodox Church and its more influential Serbian counterpart, which does not recognise the Macedonian church's ecclesiastical independence.
The Serbian Church, which has close ties with other Orthodox churches, has blocked the recognition of the Macedonian Church by other Orthodox churches ever since it declared its "autocephaly", or independence, in the late 1960s.
Speaking before the Bulgarian court today, Vraniskovski said that he was a victim of political persecution and described the verdict against him in Macedonia as a shame for the country.
His lawyer, Yonko Grozev, welcomed the court’s decision. “There is a lot of evidence that criminal prosecution against Bishop Jovan has been motivated by his religious work,” Grozev told Balkan Insight, adding that Macedonia's extradition request contradicts the European Convention on Extradition which forbids handing over a wanted person if he is believed to be persecuted based on his religious views.
Grozev also said that the charges against his client were fabricated to stop his religious activities in Macedonia.
A source from the Serbian Orthodox Church told Balkan Insight in November that “Vraniskovski is a Serbian citizen and the Church is doing everything in its power to secure his release."
Macedonia accused Vraniskovski of inciting religious and racial hatred by setting up a parallel Orthodox church in Macedonia loyal to Serbia, later called the Ohrid Archdiocese.
The Macedonian Church saw this as a Serbian attempt to undermine its authority while the Serbian Church complained that the Macedonians were persecuting one of its priests.
The US State Department, in its November 2010 report on religious freedom cited Macedonia’s failure to register Vraniskovski’s church as a legal religious community as a shortcoming. Macedonia's constitution lists only five faiths. The State Department says this may form the basis for the unequal treatment for the others.