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14 Feb 11

Eight Injured in Clashes over 'Church' Construction in Macedonia

Rival Macedonian and Albanian protesters clashed on Sunday at Skopje’s fortress over the controversial construction of a museum in the form of a church, leaving several injured.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Skopje

Witnesses say that a fight broke out between ethnic Macedonians, who were supporting the building of the museum-church, and ethnic Albanians, who are opposed to the project, on Sunday afternoon.

Stones were thrown, and police said that eight people were injured in the incident, including two police officers. One person was seriously injured, and remains in hospital.

The situation in and around the Skopje fortress on Monday is calm, with a visible increase in police presence.

The plan to build a museum in the style of a medieval church at the fortress in Macedonia’s capital has ignited the country's tense ethnic relations.

Nearly all ethnic Albanian political parties and organisations have labelled the project as a provocation from the ruling, conservative government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Some have called for the construction of a mosque at the same location.

Following the clashes, the opposition and ruling parties traded blame over the incident.

In a joint statement, the ruling coalition partners, the centre-right VMRO DPMNE and the junior ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, condemned the incident and appealed for calm.

“These sensitive issues should be solved only with open political dialogue through institutions,” the statement reads. “We assure you that the nurturing of the cultural rights and heritage of all ethnic communities remains a priority for both parties,” it added.

Meanwhile, the opposition Social Democrats asked for the resignation of Police Minister Gordana Jankulovska and her deputy Xhevat Buci for failing to prevent the incident. The party also urged the government to sack Pasko Kuzman, the head of the Cultural Heritage Protection Office, which launched the controversial construction.

“If they fail to do this they will admit that they deliberately fuel ethnic tensions in order to divert attention from the economic drought and poverty, crime and corruption,” the Social Democrats spokesman Emilijan Stankovic told media late on Sunday.

The clashes on Sunday came after previously a group of people, led by high-ranking officials from the DUI, the biggest ethnic Albanian party in the country, forcibly entered the fortress and started demolishing the construction site late on Friday.

The action was condemned by Gruevski and his VMRO DPMNE party.

The museum was being constructed on the foundations of a recently excavated 14th-century Orthodox church in the old fortress that dominates the skyline of the capital.

The style and location of the building stirred suspicions among Albanians, who saw it as an attempt by the Christian Macedonian majority to gain a foothold in what the mainly Muslim Albanians see as their side of town.

The row over the museum recalled the heated discussions of 2009 and 2010 about whether the state should build an Orthodox church in the centre of Skopje, near the main square.

All ethnic Albanian parties and many Albanian NGOs conditioned support for the church with the parallel erection of a mosque at a nearby location.

The authorities eventually abandoned the idea to build a church but gave the site to the Orthodox Church, which has since remained silent about the possible start of construction.

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