A sacked bishop is threatening to reveal the names of colleagues he says were prepared to agree to a controversial plan for the Serbian Orthodox Church to subsume its Macedonian counterpart.
IWPR – 24 July 2002 – Bishop Jovan of Veles and Povardarje was denounced as a “traitor” earlier this month and stripped of his titles in punishment for his efforts to incorporate the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC) into the Serb body as an autonomous but subordinate group.
Serbian clerics, meanwhile, have said they will continue to recognise the ousted priest and have since broken off all discussions with the Macedonian ecclesiastical authorities.
Macedonians have been enraged by the moves to resolve a long-standing quarrel between the two churches, which dates back to the country’s self proclaimed autocephaly of the MOC in the Sixties.
Now Jovan claims that he is being made a scapegoat for the row. His synod sent him to serve 30 days penance in the Saint Georgi Martyr Monastery in Negotin, near Veles, but he has been forced to return to his parents’ flat in Bitola after angry locals locked the doors of the retreat. He has since declared his family home to be a church.
This is the most recent case in a chain of controversial events. At the beginning of this month, Jovan locked himself in his official residence and refused to leave, only for the local police to force the doors while the synod was still officially announcing its decision to sack the bishop.
He subsequently issued a statement accusing the police of acting illegally, as church and state are separate under the Macedonian constitution, and claiming that the authorities had no right to enforce ecclesiastical decisions.
Over the border in Serbia, the church hierarchy condemned the removal of its foremost ally. “We cease all our relations and negotiations with the church in Skopje,” Bishop Irinej of Nis declared, omitting to recognise the Macedonian body’s official name.
The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), Patriarch Pavle, issued a statement condemning police participation in Jovan’s removal from office.
In equally combative mood, MOC spokesman Bishop Timotej of Ohrid and Kicevo, accused the Serbian church of attempting to destroy the former, adding that this “cannot be allowed“.
Far from repenting, Jovan has now threatened to reveal details of the whole “conspiracy“. On July 24, he claimed in the Skopje daily newspaper Dnevnik that other members of the local synod persuaded him to accept the SOC offer, promising that they would back him up. According to the bishop, his colleagues changed their minds following the fierce reaction from the Macedonian people, who see the proposal as an attack on their identity.
Under the Serbian church’s proposal, drafted in May in the southern Serbian town of Nis, the MOC would have been renamed the “Ohrid Archbishopric” and been placed under the jurisdiction of the Serbian patriarchate.
Bishop Jovan publicly accepted the terms of the Serbian church in a letter to Patriarch Pavle on June 29. Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Alexei II was among those who welcomed his move.
The Russian body strongly supports the Serbian position and does not recognise MOC. The Moscow patriarchate’s secretary for relations with other orthodox organisations, Father Nikolaj Balasov told the Skopje daily Utrinski Vesnik last week that the Russian position on Macedonia’s “schism” was “well-known for a long time“.
The Greek Orthodox Church shares the stance of the Russian and Serb bodies towards their Macedonian counterpart. To break out of this isolation, MOC and political delegations visited the leading hierarch in the Orthodox communion, the Patriarch of Constantinople, several times last year, asking him to recognise the Macedonian church’s autocephalous status.
However, these attempts were not successful. Meanwhile, A1 TV in Skopje broadcasted the statement of an anonymous diplomat who claimed that Athens, Belgrade and Moscow were behind the bid to persuade the MOC to accept autonomous status within the Serb church and change its name.
Political analysts in Macedonia see the ecclesiastical authorities’ action against Bishop Jovan as a sign of a “cooling off” in relations between Macedonia and its northern neighbour.
Significantly, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declined to join the chorus of support for Jovan, merely saying it would examine the issue at its synod in the autumn.
Behind the scenes, Bulgarians, who have long maintained their own claims on Macedonia, are thought to be quietly content to see Serbia and its southern neighour feuding once again.
Significantly, an article in the Sofia daily Demokracia last week openly called on its church to recognise the autocephalous status of the MOC – move that some observers viewed as an attempt to stir up trouble.
This article was first published on 24 July 2002 (BCR No 352) 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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