Serbian church and government denounce conviction of priest in Macedonia

Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro - A dispute between separate Orthodox churches in the Balkans is being played out in a criminal case against a Serbian priest.

A Macedonian court has convicted Bishop Jovan of inciting religious hatred for holding services last year for loyalists of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church broke from the Serbian church in 1967. Three years ago, the Serbian Orthodox church offered to accept the Macedonian community back into its fold, with some autonomy. The idea was rejected by the Macedonian hierarchy _ except for Bishop Jovan.

Jovan has since been ostracized in Macedonia, stripped of his church rank and officially referred to by Macedonian authorities only by his secular name, Zoran Vraniskovski. Serbian officials have continued to call him Bishop Jovan.

A Macedonian court in the southern town of Bitola this month sentenced Jovan to 2 1/2 years in prison. Serbia's government ministry in charge of religion said "the persecution of Bishop Jovan is the most brutal purge of an archpriest in today's Europe on political grounds."

The government office called on the world's Orthodox churches and human rights groups to protest "the unjust punishment."