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News 31 Jan 12

Church Almost Burned in Struga, Macedonia

An Orthodox church was set on fire on Monday night in the latest in a series of violent incidents that started when Muslims in Struga took offence at a local carnival.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Struga | Photo by: idobi

Unknown arsonists on Monday night set ablaze an Orthodox church near Struga in southwest Macedonia in the latest in a series of ethic and faith-related incidents in the area.

The trouble dates back to a village carnival where locals wore masks deemed offensive to Muslim Albanians.

Firefighters fought till midnight to douse the fire at the St Nicolas church in the ethnically mixed village of Labunishta near Struga.

Police on Tuesday said they saved the 200-year-old church from the blaze but the nearby facilities had burned to the ground, including the parish dining hall.

Last Friday Muslims in Struga staged protests over what they said were insulting masks worn in a nearby village festival.

On January 14, at the annual carnival in Vevcani, ethnic Macedonians wore masks supposedly representing Muslim believers, including women in burqas.

Following the peaceful protest on Friday other incidents occurred over the weekend, including the burning of a Macedonian flag, an attack on a church and the stoning of a bus.

On Saturday, a local ambulance in the village of Labunishta, known to employ locals from Vevcani, was also pelted with stones.

In another incident on Sunday in the village of Borovec, a cross standing in the courtyard of the Orthodox church was demolished.

"This nonsence must stop," Valentina Bozninovska, head of the national Commission for Religious Communities, told Balkan Insight on Monday.

The Commission is to hold an emergency session on Tuesday in parliament to discuss the issue.

The village of Vevcani, which is almost exclusively populated by Macedonians, has issued a press release saying their intention was not to offend anyone. They said the violence was “politically motivated”.

But Ramiz Merko, the ethnic Albanian mayor of Struga, who took part in Friday's protest, said the townspeople had every right to protest. He too called for stop to the incidents.

“I participated because the feelings of the Muslim populations were offended,” he said. “I would do the same and support the Orthodox [Christian] population if they ever felt offended over something”.

All the main political parties in Macedonia on Monday condemned the violence as did the Islamic Religious Community.

Albanian Muslims make up about a quarter of the population of Macedonia but form a local majority in Struga and in most parts of the west of the country.

Struga has seen trouble before. In 2009 fights between Macedonian and Albanian high-school students left several youngsters injured. The authorities then decided to establish ethnically separate school shifts.

In 2001 Macedonia suffered a short-lived armed conflict between the Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels. The hostilities ended with the signing of a peace deal that same year that granted greater rights to the country’s Albanians.

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