MACEDONIA: Macedonian Orthodox Church to Remain in Constitution.

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service, 15 August 2001

The Macedonian president and member of the United Methodist Church Boris Trajkovski and the Prime Minister Ljupce Georgijevski, with representatives of Albanian political parties, NATO, the EU and the OSCE signed a 'Framework Agreement' in Skopje on 13 August 2001, in an attempt to 'secure the future of Macedonia's democracy' and also 'to promote the peaceful and harmonious development of civil society.'

Despite previous announcements that the change to the Macedonian Constitution will exclude the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC) and proclaim the equality of all religious communities, the new solution recognises certain churches and groups and their rights, principally the Islamic Religious Community and the Catholic Church.

Article 19 of the future Constitution, announced by the Presidential Cabinet on 14 August, declares that: "(1) The freedom of religious confession is guaranteed; (2) The right to express one's faith freely and publicly individually or with others is guaranteed; (3) The Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Religious Community, the Catholic Church, and other religious communities and groups are separate from the state and equal before the law; (4) The Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, the Catholic Church, and other religious communities and groups are free to establish schools and other social and charitable institutions, by ways of procedure regulated by law."

'There will be no sudden change of the Constitution,' Petko Zlateski, professor of Apologetics and Religious Pedagogy at the Macedonian Orthodox Church Seminary in Skopje, Macedonia's capital, and also an official of the Macedonian Bible Society, told Keston News Service by telephone on 15 August. 'The change will come in three phases: after the arrival of NATO, the Albanian terrorists should deliver one third of their weapons. When this is achieved, in the second phase, the Constitutional Amendments will be delivered to Parliament, after which the second third of the weapons should be delivered. After the voting on the Amendments, and the final third of the weapons is delivered to the security forces, the new Constitution will come into force. It is a long and cumbersome process and there is a great fear that something might go wrong. We need people of good will to achieve all of this.'

Asked about Article 19 of the future Constitution, Zlateski stated: 'The Orthodox comprise 57-60% of the total population, and the Muslims have little more than 30%, ethnic Turks, Albanians and others of that religion. It is indicative that the Catholic Church is named in the Constitution Amendment and they have only 0.3% of the population. But, the most important fact is that the Macedonian Orthodox Church remains in the Constitution. All religions in Macedonia are equal, anyway.'

Macedonia has fewer than 2 million citizens, of whom most are Orthodox and about one-third are Muslims. Muslim sources speak of almost 50% of the population being Muslim. Among Muslims, 80% are ethnic Albanians, and the rest are ethnic Turks, Torbesi (Slavic Muslims speaking the Macedonian language), Romanies and Bosnians. There are fewer than one thousand Methodists; President Trajkovski used to be a Methodist lay preacher. The MOC obtained autonomous status in 1957 from the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), but in 1967, with help from the then-ruling Communist Party, it declared an autocephalous status that is not recognised by any other Orthodox church. There are ongoing annual intensive talks between the SOC and the MOC regarding the current and future status of the MOC.

'We opted for five religious communities to be included in the new Constitution, either all of them or none,' says Zejnulah Fazliu, aide to the President of the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, told Keston by telephone from Skopje on 15 August. 'All five communities worked together toward the achievement of peaceful solution of the present crisis. We are not very satisfied because the Jewish community and the Methodist Church are not included in Article 19, but this was clearly a political decision. Please, allow me to say that the Islamic Religious Community deeply regrets that the change of the Macedonian Constitution has been achieved with the loss of lives and bloodshed. We had ten years to do it in a democratic manner, but nothing happened until the conflict.'

Fighting in Macedonia broke out in late February 2001, when the National Liberation Army (NLA) (Albanian rebel forces), attacked Macedonian police and seized a portion of the western part of the country, close to the Kosovo border. At the end of June there were 65,000 Albanian refugees from Macedonia in Kosovo and 36,000 internally displaced persons within the country. (END)