A deal between the Serbian and Macedonian churches to resolve a decades-long dispute over the latter’s status has divided public opinion in Macedonia and triggered accusations of treason.
IWPR – 7 June 2002 – The row erupted after the two bodies signed an agreement on May 17, 2002, which abolished the Macedonian church’s independent autocephalous status – where it appointed its own head and was not subject to the rule of an archbishop – and made it an autonomous entity within the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The Macedonian church declared autocephaly in 1967, a move strongly encouraged by the communist hierarchy as part of a drive to bolster Macedonia’s national identity. But its Serbian counterpart, which formerly controlled the Macedonian dioceses, resisted the move and it was never recognised by orthodox churches elsewhere.
However, the Nis draft agreement between the bodies – confirmed on the Serbian side on June 1 – has caused further fury within Macedonia, where many see it as an act of surrender.
The plan to accept autonomous status within the Serbian church has divided Macedonian bishops into two camps.
Petar of Australia and New Zealand, Timotej of Ohrid and Kicevo, Naum of Strumica and Jovan of Povardarie support autonomy.
Kiril of Polog and Kumanovo, Agatangel of Bregalnica and Gorazd of Western Europe champion autocephaly. The head of the church, Archbishop Stefan of Ohrid, has taken a neutral position.
The two sides are so far apart that Agatangel of Bregalnica has threatened schism if the document is adopted while Kiril of Polog and Kumanovo is reported to have physically threatened Jovan of Povardarie.
Autocephaly, which is akin to ecclesiastical independence, has ramifications that go way beyond the clergy and religious people. An independent Macedonian church is seen as an emblem of the country’s statehood and nationhood.
The struggle with the Serbian clergy began in 1944, when the Macedonian church was first established. It functioned uneasily inside the Serbian church until 1956, when the campaign for autocephalous status began.
When Serbia refused to agree to this change, the Macedonian clergy – supported by the Communist Party at local and national level – declared autocephalous status unilaterally.
The Serbian clergy have never accepted the Macedonians’ right to independence, even though their control of the dioceses only dated back to the Serbian conquest in the Balkan wars of 1912-1913.
At the end of the 1960s, the Serbs produced a compromise proposal for temporary autonomy, which the Macedonian clergy turned down. They did not gain the support of the other Orthodox churches, which sided overwhelmingly with the Serbs. Since 1967, the Macedonian church has been treated as a schismatic organisation.
Autocephaly supporters see the latest agreement as little better than treason.
“Macedonia is a completely independent country and is entitled to autocephalous status,” said Jovan Belcovski, professor of church history at the orthodox faculty of theology in Skopje.
“We cannot go back. There is no known case of a church that has declared autocephalous status later returning to a lower level.”
The “no” camp has noted that the three bishops most in favour of autonomy share a Greek or Serbian background. Petar and Timotej were educated at the Belgrade Orthodox Faculty of Theology, while Naum was a monk on Mount Athos and his entire education has been under Greek influence.
The autocephaly camp believes the Nis talks are part of a wider Serbian plan to destabilise Macedonia and are particularly angered by the fact that the agreement questions even the name of its church.
The Serbs recognise Stefan only as Archbishop of Ohrid, not as head of a Macedonian Orthodox Church. Macedonian nationalists see the hand of Athens in this, given Greece’s historic opposition to the use of the word Macedonia for anything other than the Greek province of the same name.
Bishop Timotej, a supporter of the draft agreement, was unrepentant. In a statement he recently attacked those who “one-sidedly declared autocephalous status in 1967“.
The statement infuriated Bishop Kiril, the last surviving cleric to have signed the declaration of autocephalous status, who has vowed to fight the Nis accord to the end.
It remains unclear whether the Macedonian church will halt its negotiations with the its Serb counterpart and cling to a status that the rest of the orthodox community sees as schismatic, or continue talks towards a compromise over the use of the word Macedonia.
A possible solution might involve a double name, satisfying both Macedonian public opinion and the Greeks.
But the clergy will have to be careful. The public expects its orthodox church to win the right to be identified with the Macedonian state and nation.
This article was first published on 7 June 2002 (BCR No 341) by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), London. Posted on Religioscope with permission.Articles published by the IWPR on Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus as well as other topics can be accessed on its website:
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