Bishop's struggle reflects wider Balkan rift

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."