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News 10 Jun 13

Clashes Over Church Continue in Macedonia

At least two people have been injured in clashes between protesters and police that erupted over a church construction project in the Centar municipality of the capital Skopje.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

The clashes started on Monday when an angry mob of several hundred government supporters tried to barge into the courtyard of the municipality which was being guarded by a police cordon, angry over the opposition mayor's alleged plan - which he denies - to demolish a church.

The violent protest was a continuation of incidents on Friday when the same group of government supporters surrounded the opposition-run Centar municipality building, breaking windows and not allowing a council session to continue.

This time, unlike in Friday, the police presence was visibly stronger, with riot officers blocking the protesters’ way into the municipality.

Just as last week, after the violence, the mayor was evacuated from the building.

The protests came after a non-governmental group called Veritas alleged that the newly-elected mayor, Andrej Zernovski, plans to demolish an Orthodox church that is under construction.

The municipality has denied the report, saying that the mayor has no such plan.

Government supporters have condemned Zernovski, who came to office in local elections held in March and April, after he announced his intention to probe the costly government-backed revamp of the capital called ‘Skopje 2014’ and call a referendum on the project.

The 30-metre-high church in question is under construction in the downtown area with the approval of the previous municipal leadership and the former mayor, Zoran Todorovic, a member of Macedonia's ruling VMRO DPMNE party.

The church is popularly dubbed, ‘Gruevski’s church’ after Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

But the mayor insists that he “never planned to demolish the church” and that the violence is an orchestrated government campaign against him.

Meanwhile, the Macedonian Orthodox Church has not condemned Friday’s violence.

Only one leading cleric, Bishop Pimen, came out with an appeal for calm.

“My faithful people, is this the way we witness the peace of Christ? We demolish a municipality in an attempt to prevent the ‘demolishing’ of a church. Let us fill up the churches instead of municipal courts,” Bishop Pimen wrote on Facebook.

There were also clashes in connection with the same church in March 2009 when a group of religious militants tangled with Skopje architecture students who were protesting against the construction project.

The violence took on a political dimension when Gruevski sided with the militants and accused the students of acting as a front for the opposition.

The location of the church, originally intended for the main square, was later moved by several hundred metres. The government then distanced itself from its construction in deference to the secular character of the state.

The church is now being built by an organisation called Saints Constantine and Helena, and funded through donations.

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