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News 02 Jul 13

Renegade Macedonian Priest Jailed for Defrauding Church

In a high-profile retrial, former Macedonian Orthodox priest Jovan Vraniskovski has been sentenced to three years in jail for embezzling 250,000 euro from the church.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje

Jovan Vraniskovski

Skopje’s criminal court convicted the cleric of embezzling the money from the Macedonian Orthodox Church in 2002, before he defected to set up his own church.

Another 18 defendants in the same case, who included Vraniskovski’s mother and sister, were given two years' probation each. They were found guilty of trying to launder the money that Vraniskovski embezzled by buying real estate and other property.

At the retrial, Vraniskovski pleaded not guilty, insisting he was framed and that witnesses in the case were not genuine.

“The judge is not guilty, he will play as he is told,” Vraniskovksi said during the trial’s closing arguments, suggesting that the state was backing the church by prosecuting him.

Vraniskovski was initially convicted in October 2009 by a court in the central town of Veles where he once served as a priest. As he was out of the country at the time, the court jailed him in absentia.

In December 2011, Vraniskovski turned himself over to the Macedonian authorities, seeking a retrial. Macedonian law allows for the retrial of people sentenced in absentia if they voluntarily hand themselves in within a year of receiving their sentence.

Despite evidence suggesting that he returned after the expiry of the time limit, Skopje’s appeals court allowed a retrial.

For almost a decade, the cleric has been the focus of a dispute between the Macedonian Orthodox Church and its Serbian counterpart, which does not recognise Macedonia's ecclesiastical independence, known as autocephaly.

The more influential Serbian Orthodox Church has said it will only offer its Macedonian counterpart autonomy.

Vraniskovski claims he was put on trial because he defected from the Macedonian Orthodox Church and formed the unregistered parallel Orthodox Ohrid Archdiocese, which was supported by the Serbian church.

The Orthodox Ohrid Archdioces called the case politically motivated and said the jailing of Vraniskovski showed that the country's courts are used “to protect the monopoly of the schismatic Macedonian Orthodox Church”.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has demanded that the Macedonian authorities put an end to the 'persecution' of Vraniskovski and his church.

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