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Bishop's struggle reflects wider Balkan rift

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    2004.11.03 IHT: Bishop s struggle reflects wider Balkan rift By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune Wednesday, November 3, 2004 ZELO POLJE, Macedonia
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 3, 2004
      2004.11.03 IHT:
      Bishop's struggle reflects wider Balkan rift

      By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
      Wednesday, November 3, 2004

      ZELO POLJE, Macedonia Zoran Vraniskovski, an Orthodox bishop, is looking
      at a thick steel door recently built into the small house that serves as a
      monastery for him and about 50 followers in this hamlet in the hills of
      southern Macedonia.

      "We had to have it put in after they tried to burn down the house,"
      Vraniskovski said, explaining how one evening in March two masked men,
      armed with semiautomatic rifles, forced their way into the building in
      search of him. Failing to find him, they verbally abused two nuns in the
      house, cut off the women's hair and set the building alight. Neither nun
      was seriously hurt, but the house was badly damaged.

      Vraniskovski, 38, whose title is Bishop Jovan, Metropolitan of Veles and
      Povodarije, believes that the attack was part of a campaign by Orthodox
      church leaders and government officials to persecute him and his group for
      their refusal to recognize the state-backed Macedonian Orthodox Church.

      Instead, he has aligned himself with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and
      some people have labeled him a traitor.

      In the past year he has been sentenced to prison twice for his religious
      activities, charges that have caused concern among international human
      rights organizations. He is currently free and appealing against an
      18-month jail sentence.

      Vraniskovski's problems illustrate the intensity of feelings in
      Macedonia, a small Balkan republic that was once part of Yugoslavia, over
      what many perceive as persistent attempts by outsiders and sometimes their
      own citizens to undermine the recently established state.

      The case is noteworthy as the country prepares to vote Sunday in a
      referendum on decentralization that could block moves to grant greater
      autonomy to ethnic Albanians.

      While groups like Amnesty International have listed Vraniskovski as a
      prisoner of conscience, he has gained little support among Macedonia's
      ethnic Slav majority. He has incensed many of them, in their eyes stoking
      the flames of a dispute over Macedonia's status as a nation - an issue that
      has vexed this country since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

      Of all the states that have formed since the breakup of the Yugoslav
      federation during the Balkans wars of the 1990s, Macedonia's status is the
      most contentious. While it seceded peacefully from that former Socialist
      bloc, Macedonia's language, nationhood, borders and religion are disputed
      by neighboring states.

      Vraniskovski's dispute with church leaders has its origins in the 1960s
      when Macedonia, then a republic of Yugoslavia, declared independence, or
      "autocephaly," from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Neighboring orthodox
      churches refused to recognize this.

      In 2002, the Serbian Orthodox Church offered to heal the rift with the
      Holy Synod of Macedonia by proposing to give it substantial autonomy, a
      step short of complete independence.

      Vraniskovski, then a bishop with the Macedonian Orthodox Church, sided
      with the Serbian Synod. He was subsequently expelled from the Macedonian
      Church.

      "The Macedonian Orthodox Church is a product of a communist state,"
      Vraniskovski said in a recent interview, declaring that the ambitions of
      communist officials, and not religious doctrine, lay behind declaration of
      autocephaly by Macedonian bishops in 1967.

      Since his expulsion, the bishop has continued to conduct services for a
      small band of followers and has openly criticized Macedonian church
      leaders. In October last year, a court in the city of Bitola gave him a
      two-year suspended prison sentence for conducting a baptism. In January
      this year, he was arrested along with 12 others at his parents' apartment
      in Bitola after conducting a private church service. He was subsequently
      charged with "causing national, racial or religious hate, discord and
      intolerance," resulting in his 18-month jail sentence in August.

      Last month dozens of police officers surrounded Vraniskovski's home and
      forced him to watch as bulldozers demolished the foundations of a new
      monastery and chapel his followers had began building. The police said it
      had not received planning permission.

      Macedonia's justice minister, Ixhet Mehmeti, and the state prosecutor,
      Aleksandar Prcevski, declined to comment on the Vraniskovski case.

      A senior member of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which has been behind
      some of the court actions, maintained that Vraniskovski was being treated
      according to the law. Bishop Kyril, the Metropolitan of Polog and Kumanovo
      accused him of working as an "agent" for the Greek Orthodox Church.

      The religious dispute is seen as an extension of the debate over the
      country's standing as a state. Even its name is in dispute: Officially
      known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, Greece
      blocked acceptance of the name Macedonia, fearing the new republic would
      lay claim to a region in Greece. Bulgaria refuses to acknowledge the
      existence of a Macedonian nation, as the region was once part of Bulgaria.
      The country's languages are near identical.

      "Many foreigners are deciding the destiny of Macedonia," said Alesandar
      Georgievski, a neighbor of Vraniskovski's and a complainant in a case
      against him.

      There appears to be no immediate solution to the dispute. Vraniskovski
      said he was ready to go to prison over the matter, describing his treatment
      as proof the church has changed very little since the 1960s. "They're still
      communists," he said, referring to the government and court officials.
      "They are living several decades in the past."
      Copyright © 2004 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

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