Serbia 'Financing' Rival Macedonian Church

Skopje, Macedonia - Leading churchmen in Macedonia say documentation from the Serbian ministry of religion confirms that Belgrade is financing a parallel Orthodox church in the country.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church, MPC, says the document, revealed in early March, proves that Serbia's government is the real force behind the parallel church led by a renegade cleric, Archbishop Jovan Vraniskovski.

The memo, dated in January, states that the Belgrade ministry of religion sent 500,000 Serbian dinars (around 6,000 euro) for use by the Ohrid Archdiocese, as the breakaway, pro-Serbian church is known.

Serbia's minister of religion, Milan Radulovic, confirmed the authenticity of the document. He said money was sent to the Ohrid Archdiocese with the approval of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

"This is a programme which has been given a green light by the government," Radulovic said.

Bishop Timotej, the MPC spokesperson, said: "After this, we do not have to prove [that] the so-called Ohrid Archbishopric merely works for the interests of the Serbian church and the Serbian state".

For its part, the government in Belgrade says it has nothing to apologise for.

The ministry of religion said Serbian law allowed for "the provision of support and assistance for the protection of ecclesiastical cultural heritage outside the borders of the Serbia-Montenegro State Union".

It added that this covered also "the advancement of the religious aspect of national identity beyond the borders of the State Union".

The archbishop at the centre of the furore also defended his right to receive funds from north of the border.

The Ohrid Archdiocese is "a part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, ecclesiastically," Jovan told Balkan Insight.

Church rows are complex and impenetrable to outsiders, who often find the MPC's privileged relations to the state idiosyncratic in a secular, pluralistic society.

But Macedonia's quest for independence and security has long been bound up with the cause of an independent church.

Ever since the MPC proclaimed independence, known as autocephaly, from the Serbian Church, in 1967, any attempts by the Serbian Church to regain its foothold in Macedonia have met with hostility from both local clerics and the government.

Archbishop Jovan is regarded with special dislike as he is no Serbian import but - in MPC eyes - a traitor, having been a bishop in the Macedonian Church before he quit in 2002 and joined the Serbs, being appointed by them as Archbishop of Ohrid.

The current government, like all its predecessors, shows no sign of relaxing support for the MPC's demands to retain a monopoly on the profession of Orthodox Christianity in Macedonia.

As Macedonian law outlaws two religious communities holding the same confession, the government can claim it is merely upholding the law by refusing registration for Jovan's church.

"We have only one institutionally recognized Orthodox church in Macedonia," Cane Mojanovski, head of the government commission for relations with religious communities, told Balkan Insight.

In the tense battle of wills, the discovery of recent financial transactions between Archbishop Jovan and Belgrade has come as a godsend to his Macedonian opponents. They are bent on proving that he is a Serbian government agent, with an agenda to pull up the roots of Macedonia's national identity rather than save souls.

The affair had confirmed the connection between the Serbian Church and state in their "mutual dream to rule over Macedonia," Bishop Petar of Prespa told Balkan Insight.

The drive to set up a rival religious hierarchy in Macedonia was "scandalous and unprecedented", he added.

Bishop Timotej put it more strongly. "It is obvious the Serbian church does not care about creating normal relations but instead wants to destroy and torment the whole nation, state and church," he said recently.

Serbian churchmen say the government gift was a legitimate donation and was not aimed at financing propaganda.

The Serbian Church requested financial aid from the Serbian government for the Ohrid Archbishopric as its lacked sufficient funds of its own for the purpose, Bishop Irinej Gavrilovic of Nis said.

"The ministry of religion provided assistance to the Ohrid archdiocese, which was earmarked for the personal needs of Archbishop Jovan - not for some propaganda," Bishop Irinej said.

With politicians weighing in on the side of the churchmen, the dispute shows no sign of dying away.

While Macedonian clerics triumphantly presented the controversial document to European Union and United States ambassadors in Skopje, Macedonia's foreign ministry sent a protest to Belgrade, reminding it "of the necessity to respect the principle of state non-interference in church matters".

A former foreign minister, Slobodan Casule, accused Serbia of meddling in Macedonia's affairs and of violating its own constitutional separation of church and state. "Serbia interferes in the internal affairs both of the MPC and of Macedonia," he said.

Even the Macedonian president, Branko Crvenkovski, warned that the affair, if proven, might cast a shadow over ties between the two countries.

Mirko Djordjevic, a religious expert in Belgrade, said the Macedonians had a point.

"Any relationship by the Belgrade political leadership with that organisation, [the Ohrid Archdiocese] from the Macedonian perspective, is a relationship with an illegal organisation, which complicates things enormously," he said.

But Djordjevic added that the latest drama over the Archbishop's money could not be seen in isolation; it was part of a longer-running battle between the churches, dating back to the events of 1967 and beyond.

"If there is no willingness in place to solve this issue, the dispute may drag on for decades," he warned.