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News 02 Sep 14

'Trial' Dashes Hope of End to Balkan Church Feud

The Serbian Orthodox Church decision to 'try' the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church as a secessionist has dampened hopes of an end to the dispute between the two churches.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Church in Skopje | Photo by: Richard Schofield

Moves by the Serbian Orthodox Church to put the head of the Church in Macedonia on "trial" before an ecclesiastical court in Serbia will set back recent attempts to renew dialogue between the churches, observers say.

Last week, the governing body of the Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, the Holy Synod, said it would bring the head of the Macedonian church, Archbishop Stefan, before the Church court for violating ecclesiastical laws, known as canons.

“The SPC has no grounds to put anyone from the Macedonian Church on trial," Macedonian theology professor Kosta Milkovski said. "At the very least the move of the Serbian clergy is questionable because it leads us further away from unification,” he added.

The Serbian Church accuses Archbishop Stefan of “persistently remaining in schism [secession from the Orthodox churches], non-Christian  participation in the prosecution against Archbishop Jovan ...the canonical head of the Ohrid Archdiocese and his priests, monks and faithful followers, as well as for many other activities”.

The words about Archbishop Jovan refer to Jovan Vransikovski, a former cleric of the Macedonian Church who attempted to establish a separate archdiocese loyal to the Serbian Church. He is now in jail in Macedonia for financial offences.

For almost a decade, the case of the priest has been a source of dispute between the Macedonian and Serbian Churches.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church broke away unilaterally from the Serbian Church durting the Communist era in Yugoslavia.

The Serbian Church has always claimed that the move was politically driven, broke church law, and should not be recognised.

It has been supported by the the Orthodox world and the Macedonian Church remains unrecognised by any other Orthodox church.

After years spent abroad as a fugitive from the Macedonian legal system, in July 2013 Vraniskovski was jailed for three years for embezzling 250,000 euro.

The Skopje court said Vraniskovski pocketed the money from the Macedonian Church in 2002 before he defected to set up the so-called Ohrid Archdiocese.

A spokesperson for the Macedonian Church, Bishop Timotej, said the "trial" meant nothing in Macedonia. “SPC decisions have no validity in Macedonia,” he said.

“This is how kinsmanship and religious brotherhood are being shown in the Balkans," the Macedonian journalist Daut Dauti noted ironically in the daily newspaper, Dnevnik.

"It is the peak of those ‘brotherly’ relations that follow the futile statement by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic that he would help normalize relations between the churches,” he added.

In October 2012, President Nikolic raised hopes of a breakthrough in the dispute, saying he was ready to engage in finding a solution.

Another spark of hope emerged in May, when prominent Macedonian clerics called for Vraniskovski to be pardoned. They said releasing him early would improve the Macedonian Church's bargaining position ahead of a major Orthodox summit in Istanbul in 2016.

The ecumenical council will be the first in over 1,200 years to gather Orthodox church leaders from all around the world and the Macedonian side was hoping to be able to solve the dispute by then.

The Macedonian Church's position is complex owing to repeated shifts in Balkan boundaries. In the 19th century, most of the dioceses it now covers formed part of what was known as the Bulgarian Exarchate.

After Serbia conquered much of Ottoman Macedonia in 1912-13, the dioceses were placed under the control of the Serbian Church.

Matters rested there until the end of WW2, when Macedonia gained a degree of political independence as a separate republic in the new Yugoslav federation, after which pressure gathered for the local Church to gain independence as well.

This culminated in 1967 when the Macedonian dioceses in Yugoslavia proclaimed independence - known as autocephaly. The Serbian Church declared this move uncanonical.

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