Jailed priest pushes for religious freedom

Skopje, Macedonia - With shades drawn and candles burning, a small band of Serbian Orthodox followers meets here every Sunday morning in a little fourth-floor apartment for a semisecret liturgy.

The secrecy, say the followers of controversial archbishop Jovan Vraniskovski, stems from a lack of religious freedom in Macedonia - even as the former Yugoslav republic tries to shake off its past and join the European Union (EU).

The priest has been mired in allegations - and was even thrown in prison - since he broke with the dominant Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC) in July 2002. His recent release, says a human rights organization working on his behalf, means little since Macedonian law forbids the archbishop from registering his church.

"It's absolute nonsense in the framework of international articles and European conventions," says Mirjana Najcevska, president of the Macedonian chapter of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

The committee filed their case with the European Court of Human Rights last month after Macedonia's highest court upheld a law forbidding the establishment of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country. The committee's action was also prompted by ongoing police and mob harassment of Vraniskovski's followers.

Relations between the Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox churches have been sour since the Macedonians declared independence from the Serbian church in 1967.

Four years ago, the Serbian church invited the Macedonian spinoff to rejoin the fold. Vraniskovski accepted the offer. The MOC promptly banished him, while the Serbs appointed him head of the Serbian church within Macedonia in May 2003.

That's when his rap sheet began to grow. In July 2003, he was arrested for trying to baptize a child. In 2004, he was arrested, along with several monks, for holding a liturgy in his Bitolaapartment in southern Macedonia.

In 2005, he was sentenced to two and a half years - including a one-year suspended sentence for the apartment liturgy - for handing out church calendars and thus inciting religious hatred. He began serving that sentence in July, and was released last month after it was shortened to eight months. Ms. Najcevska says pressure from Western embassies and European organizations helped to secure his release.

But Vraniskovski faces more prison time on allegations of financial misconduct, including one to two years for stealing 57,000 euros ($69,000) in 2001 and 2002 when he was still with the MOC.

Other charges that Vraniskovski embezzled hundreds of thousands of euros while he'd been a high-ranking bishop in the MOC were thrown out earlier this month by a court in Veles, just south of the Macedonian capital.

But MOC officials have not let up their case against Vraniskovski. MOC Synod chair Professor Ratomir Grozdanski says Vraniskovski is helping the Serbian church undermine the religion, identity, and nationhood of Macedonians. MOC faithful point out that their church has its roots in the 9th century, and religion has provided the backbone of Macedonian identity throughout centuries of bloody attacks by neighboring Orthodox countries.

Even today, Macedonia struggles to stake out its national identity. Bulgarians often don't recognize the Macedonian language, Greeks don't recognize the country's name, and Prof. Grozdanski says the Serbs don't recognize Macedonian nationality.

"One Serbian Orthodox churchman told me, 'If I can find one Macedonian here, I'd recognize the Macedonian church,' " Grozdanski says. "The Serbian church hasn't got over its imperial wishes for power over this place."

But Vraniskovski dismisses this. "I think that their struggle is a struggle against competition," he says, adding that he was convicted for his beliefs and not for anything else. "[Officials] would be happy if the problem about my imprisonment had remained only an internal problem of the Republic of Macedonia. Perhaps it would have been the case if I was convicted for some other criminal offense, and not for what I believe in and why."

Other Serb Orthodox believers in Macedonia have had numerous difficulties as well. Teacher Monika Dodova says police questioned her teenage students about whether she was spreading church propaganda. Kiril Mirakovski says he was fired by the weekly Makedonija Denes for writing about the trampling of religious freedom in the country. And Zoran Georgiev says he was thrown out of a theological faculty for going to a Serbian Orthodox liturgy.

Father Borjan Vitanov, a former MOC priest who embraced Serbian Orthodoxy to be part of a larger world church, was beaten last July by a mob. Just two days later, a second mob looted the private house he'd been using for liturgies.

Two short videos on Mr. Vitanov's cellphone show the houses destroyed, overturned furniture, and "MOC" spray-painted on an outside wall. This and other incidents - including police harassment of followers, and mobs physically attacking buildings and leaders of Macedonian Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses - were confirmed by the Helsinki Committee here.