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Country profile: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Please note that these profiles are intended to serve as general references, and do not represent official policy positions of the World Council of Churches. The WCC strives to maintain accuracy in its information, but cannot be responsible for any mistakes or outdated information.

01 January 2004

"Church & country profiles" for several countries have been developed by the WCC Europe desk ahead of the 2006 assembly. Please note that these profiles are intended to serve as general references, and do not represent official policy positions of the World Council of Churches. The WCC strives to maintain accuracy in its information, but cannot be responsible for any mistakes or outdated information.

Introduction

Since the Republic of Macedonia[1] gained independence from Yugoslavia the early 1990s, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has sought to maintain communication with the main Christian churches in the country, and has worked closely with the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation (MCIC) to facilitate social development and inter-ethnic understanding. The purpose of this church and country report on the Republic of Macedonia is to offer an overview of the current social and religious context, and to summarize the main aspects of WCC involvement in the country.

Socio-political situation


The territory known as Macedonia has had a tumultuous history. The present-day republic occupies part of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. Subsequently a Roman and Byzantine province, in the 6th century Slavic peoples settled the region, and the area was part of the medieval Bulgarian Empires. From the 14th century, the entire region was under Turkish Ottoman rule, until the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century.The territory named Macedonia was divided among Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia and the present-day republic was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and following WWII, part of the Yugoslav territorial state. After WWII, Yugoslavia created a separate Macedonian Republic, although some dispute the appearance of a distinct Macedonian ethnic or national identity. In 1991, Macedonia seceded from the Yugoslav federation without violence, although ethnic tensions between ethnic Albanians, which form approximately 20% of the population of 2 million, and (Slav) Macedonians, and disputes with neighbouring Greece, have marked the decade.

The economic and social context remains profoundly challenging throughout former Yugoslavia. There are three characteristics of the transition economies of the region: the crisis of the former socialist industrialized sector; the sharp and continued fall in employment; and the return to subsistence agriculture. State public utility providers are struggling, and the private sector and foreign investment do not compensate the loss of GDP. According to UNDP[2] , over the ten year period since 1991, the Republic of Macedonia has been passing through, and continues to undergo, a painful and deep transition to a market economy that has led to a massive rise in unemployment, a sharp fall in family incomes, diminution in official support services and a rise in general poverty levels.  

Compounding the economic transition has been the juxtaposition of a series of internal and external events which have fed the general feeling of insecurity of the populace. These included the break-up of former Yugoslavia - the traditional trading partner of Macedonia; the onset of international economic sanctions on FRY (in 1994) which also had a deep adverse impact on Macedonia; the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo (1999); and the virtual civil war within Macedonia (2001) - all of which has bred acute feelings of insecurity and fuelled the potential for deeper ethnic conflict.

In 2001, there were violent confrontations between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces, which rapidly polarized the society and undermined the stability of the political institutions. The international community (primarily through the European Union and the OSCE) has played a largely stabilizing and appeasing role, brokering agreements and political reforms which brought an end to the conflict. However, despite the decrease in violence subsequent to the Ohrid framework peace agreement (August 2001) and the revised Constitution, the context in the Republic of Macedonia remains complex and unstable.

Two major external factors continue to threaten the peace. The possibility of full independence for Kosovo based on an ethnic partition would formalize ethnic divisions and further reduce the hope of sustainable multicultural societies in Macedonia and the broader region. Organized crime and corruption continue to undermine the viability of democratic and political institutions in the country and the broader region, as the recent assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic in neighbouring Serbia has demonstrated.

Church and ecumenical situation


The Republic of Macedonia has two large religious communities: Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Although recent census data has not yet been published, nominally, 60-70 percent of the population are Macedonian Orthodox, approximately 20-30 percent are Muslim, approximately 1 percent are Roman Catholic, and approximately 3 percent are of other faiths (largely various Protestant denominations). There is also a small Jewish community in Skopje. The World Council of Churches has no member church in the Republic of Macedonia, although the Macedonian Methodist Church is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, which is a member of WCC.

In 2001, in response to the worsening civil conflict in the country, WCC organized a meeting of the leaders and representatives of the main religious communities in the Republic of Macedonia for an international round table meeting with the international ecumenical organizations near Geneva, Switzerland in June 2001. The meeting was arranged with the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation and the Conference of European Churches. The WCC secured the agreement of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, an internationally-respected head of church and ecumenical leader, to be the Chairman of the meeting. The meeting resulted in a joint declaration for peace, the full text of which is available on the WCC website[3] . The meeting and declaration attracted considerable attention in the country and in Kosovo, although this did not prevent continued examples of violence against religious objects.

Church-state relations and religious legislation


The Macedonian Constitution provides for freedom of religion[4] , and the Government generally respects this right in practice. However, the law places some limits on religious practices, including the establishment of places of worship and the collection of contributions. Prior to January 2002, the Constitution specifically mentioned the Macedonian Orthodox Church, although it did not confer official status. As part of the Framework Agreement, the Constitution was amended to include mention of the Jewish community and the Methodist church. None of these communities has official status or privileges.

The constitutional provision for religious freedom is refined further in the 1997 Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups. This law designates the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic community, the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and the Methodist Church as religious communities, and all other religions as religious groups. However, there is no legal differentiation between religious communities and groups.

The Macedonian authorities have taken an active interest in the status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church and its relations with WCC. During a WCC staff visit to Macedonia in March 2000, a meeting was held with State President Boris Trajkovski. The President is a lay preacher in the United Methodist Church, originally from the region of Strumica, a fact which attracted much attention in a country where Protestants form a small minority. The President emphasized his concern about the issue of membership of the Macedonian Orthodox Church in WCC, which he understands as a condition of formal international recognition and legitimacy of Macedonian identity. He expressed his personal desire to work for a full recognition of the national church 'our common pride and heritage' and spoke of his positive relationship with Archbishop Stefan, the new head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Macedonian Orthodox Church


The status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church mirrors the complex history and identity of the country. The Orthodox Christians of the region of Macedonia have been under various jurisdictions in their history: the Ohrid Archbishopric until 1767 when it was dissolved by the Ottoman rulers; the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the later Ottoman period; after 1870 mainly under the Bulgarian Exarchate; after 1919 mainly under the Serbian Orthodox Church, to be reintegrated into the Bulgarian Church during WWII following the occupation of the country by Bulgarian Axis troops.

In 1958, an Ecclesiastical and National Council restored the Archbishopric of Ohrid and elected bishops. In 1959, the Serbian Orthodox Church accepted the fait accompli of autonomy and consecrated three bishops. This initiative had the strong backing of the Titoist Yugoslav authorities who were seeking to reinforce a distinct Macedonian identity. The Macedonian Orthodox Church declared its full autocephaly (independence) from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1967, claiming succession of the Archbishopric of Ohrid which existed prior to 1767. This situation has never been recognized as canonical by the Serbian Orthodox Church, nor by any other Orthodox church, and therefore the church is not a member church of WCC and exists in almost complete ecumenical isolation. The Serbian Church disputes the historical claims to autocephaly of the Macedonians, although regular meetings have taken place in recent years to seek solutions. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has expressed sensitivity to the problem of recognition, and has asked Archbishop Anastasios of Albania to facilitate dialogue, but has said to Macedonian representatives that the issue must first be settled with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In 1991, the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC) was recognized in the Constitution of newly independent FYROM /Macedonia. The current head of the church is Archbishop Stefan, who succeeded Archbishop Mihail (d. 1999). According to the 1994 census, over 70 percent of the population of 2 million declared themselves Orthodox Christians. There are around 1200 churches on the territory of Macedonia served by around 700 priests. It is unclear how many of these are regularly functioning. (By comparison there are around 450 mosques). Several monasteries have been revived following a period of decline, and there are now over 60 young novices in the country. The theological seminary, founded in 1967 (in Bracevo near Skopje), counts 130 students, and there is an independent theological faculty in Skopje with over 150 students, while some students study in Rome, Moscow and Bucharest. The MOC uses Macedonian or Slavonic in normal liturgical practice, but some use Vlach, and around 15 parishes of ethnic Serbs use modern Serbian. The MOC uses the old (Julian) calendar, and there is strong popular resistance to any change proposed by the hierarchy.

Over the years, the Macedonian Orthodox Church has actively sought relations with the WCC, and formally applied for membership in 1967, which was not accepted by WCC. In regular meetings with Church representatives, WCC staff have always maintained the position that membership is dependent on good relations within a confessional family, and therefore on recognition with the other canonical Orthodox churches. In meetings of WCC staff with Archbishop Stefan in May 2003, he emphasized his belief that the Macedonian Orthodox Church is ‘not new' among Orthodox churches, and that there are no ‘spiritual, theological or doctrinal differences', but that the church was a ‘victim' of the lack of clarity on the conditions for granting of autocephaly. ‘Our sin is our country', he stated, ‘and our neighbours want a monopoly on history and truth.' However, the Archbishop recognized that dialogue was not broken, despite recent difficulties, and he noted that Macedonian church delegations had recently visited Belgrade and Sofia, while visits had been made by the Orthodox churches of Antioch and Albania. He remained confident that the problem of status would soon be solved.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church has developed good relations with the Vatican, and some elements in the church have discussed the possibility of union during the church's history. However, church representatives currently seem more concerned to renew relations with the Orthodox family. The Archbishop expressed his concern about the growth of radical elements in the Islamic community in Macedonia, which strained relations among the religious, and ethnic, communities in the country. During the 2001 conflict, over 40 churches were attacked, he said, although a number of mosques were also targeted as symbols of ethnic and national identity. In reference to the recent conflict in the country, the Archbishop expressed his pessimism about the real commitment of the Albanian side to respect the peace accords, and singled out the issue of impunity for crimes committed during 2001 as one factor of continued mistrust between the ethnic communities.

Other churches in the Republic of Macedonia


Catholic Church of Macedonia


The Roman (Latin-rite) Catholic Bishop Joakim Herbut of Skopje has in his care about 20,000 Catholics (Roman and Greek Catholic or Uniate) in the Republic of Macedonia, who still remain in his diocese after the administrative separation from those in Kosovo. In January 2001, Pope John Paul II established a separate exarchate for the Eastern Rite (Uniate) Catholics in Macedonia. The first Greek Catholics in what would later be Yugoslavia were Serbians living in Hungarian-controlled Croatia in the early 17th century. The historical Greek Catholic diocese of Krizevci was extended to embrace all the Greek Catholics in Yugoslavia when the country was founded after World War I. The diocese included five distinct groups: some ethnic Serbs in Croatia, Ruthenians who had emigrated from Slovakia around 1750, Ukrainians who emigrated from Galicia in about 1900, Slavic Macedonians in the south of the country who became Catholic through missionary activity in the 19th century, and a few Romanians in the Yugoslav Banat.

United Methodist Church in the Republic of Macedonia


Protestantism gained a foothold in Bitola (Republic of Macedonia) in the 19th century, following the authorisation of Protestant activity by the Ottoman authorities. Today the Methodist Church in Macedonia has eleven communities and is under the responsibility of Bishop Heinrich Bolleter based in Zürich. The church is organized as a district under one Annual Conference with the Methodists of Vojvodina (FRY). The Conference counts around 4,000 members.

Other Protestant churches


There are a variety of other Protestant denominations represented in the Republic of Macedonia, including the Church of God, Baptists and Pentecostal churches. Most are not involved in any inter-church or ecumenical initiatives. On exception is the Evangelical-related Metanoia bookshop and publishing house in Skopje, which seeks to foster inter-Christian dialogue and understanding. A recent related initiative is the creation of the ‘Christian Europe' association, which will seek to promote a common understanding of the early Church and the Ecumenical Councils.

Other religious communities in the Republic of Macedonia


Islamic Union of Macedonia (IUM)


The Muslim Religious Community of the Republic of Macedonia is a religious community of the Islamic believers in the country founded in 1996 after the break-up of the former Yugoslav Islamic Community. It is a legally registered community, consisting of Muslim believers of all nationalities, as a non-party, multi-national religious community. The highest organ is the Assembly of the Islamic Community, while the Meshihat is an executive body responsible for religious and spiritual activities. The Meshihat is headed by a Reis-ul-Ulema who represents the religious community and directs it. The basic bodies are the committees which are organised in muftiluks. The Islamic Religious Community counts about 450 mosques and some 500 clerics. There are two other registered Islamic organisations in Macedonia: the Tarekat and the Bektashi Community. The believers of these communities come from different ethnicities: Albanians, Turks, Macedonians, as well as Roma.

Jewish Community in the Republic of Macedonia (JCRM)


The Jewish Community in Macedonia is affiliated with the Belgrade based Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia. Much of Yugoslavia's pre-war Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust, and many of the survivors emigrated to Israel after 1948. Yugoslavia's 1931 census recorded a Jewish population of 68,405. By contrast only 6,835 persons identified themselves as Jews by nationality in the census of 1948, and in 1980 the number of Jews had shrunk to 5,638. The remaining community is organized into twenty-nine communes throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation (MCIC)


The Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation was founded in 1993 by a group of local activists with the support of Dutch Interchurch Aid, in the framework of a joint ecumenical programme of the World Council of Churches. WCC has worked closely with MCIC since its creation, and has participated in the Macedonian Consortium of ecumenical agencies. MCIC was registered in 1994 and focused its initial programme on emergency assistance. MCIC quickly diversified its sectors of activities. The overall goal of MCIC is defined as the promotion, support and development of local, national and international initiatives for encouraging sustainable development of human resources in Macedonia and abroad. MCIC is one of the largest non-governmental organizations in the country, and has established a reputation as a professional and effective partner, which has the confidence of the various ethnic groups and religious communities represented on its Board.

One of the more recent initiatives of MCIC is in the field of inter-religious dialogue. MCIC has been involved in several initiatives to develop inter-ethnic and inter-cultural understanding and tolerance, including some efforts with churches and religious communities. MCIC notably worked with WCC in 2001 in preparing and hosting a major meeting of religious leaders from the country in Switzerland, at the height of the violent civil crisis in the country, which resulted in a joint declaration for peace, and was subsequently published in Macedonian media (see above).

The aim of the new project is to increase mutual understanding between religious communities and better public understanding of the role of these communities. The project, ‘Bridging religions in Macedonia', has been developed with representatives of the Macedonian Orthodox Church and of the Islamic community, and especially with representatives of their respective theological institutions. The project will focus on student exchanges, developing of yearbook and information sources, training and exposure visits. The project has the involvement of two WCC-related ecumenical agencies, Norwegian Church Aid and DanChurchAid, which will contribute expertise, contacts as well as resources. MCIC has been involved in the efforts to develop a network for peace and reconciliation in the framework of WCC's South-East Europe Ecumenical Partnership.

Conclusions


The Republic of Macedonia is a small country which continues to be an important space of diversity, but also of potential instability, in the Balkans region. The WCC involvement has been regular, but due to the complex status of the Orthodox Church, has mainly focused on the social and humanitarian efforts of MCIC, the main ecumenical-related organization in the country. In parallel, WCC has been able to establish and strengthen dialogue with the leaders of the main Christian churches, and has developed a degree of visibility and confidence which was demonstrated during the important gathering of Macedonian religious leaders in Switzerland in 2001. WCC will not be able to significantly influence a change of status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, but can and should strengthen communication and exchange of church members within the region and internationally. The WCC's South-East Europe Ecumenical Partnership provides an existing framework for promoting networking and exchange, and this and other instruments should be strengthened to overcome the isolation of the churches in the country, and to contribute to a lasting stability and peace, areas in which the religious communities may still play an important role.


1 The official UN name of the country is ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia', to distinguish the country from the Northern province of Greece which bears the same name. In this report the country is referred to by its constitutional name of ‘Republic of Macedonia'. This does not imply any official position of the WCC.
2 See UNDP Macedonia: http://www.undp.org.mk/
3 See WCC press release and joint statement on:
http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/news/press/01/13pre.html
4 Source: US State Department (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13948.htm)