Bishop's struggle reflects wider Balkan rift
- 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
"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
"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
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."
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