MACEDONIA: Church in Lesok Blown Up.

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service, 22 August 2001

The Church of St. Athanasius, in the Macedonian Orthodox Church Monastery complex at Lesok (Leshok) village, 8 km from the city of Tetovo, was destroyed by a large amount of explosives at 03.10 am on 21 August 2001. Macedonian officials are blaming Albanian extremists for this incident, but representatives of the rebel forces are denying any connection. The OSCE mission and the NATO Secretary-General have both condemned the destruction of this religious site. There were no casualties, but the material damage is incalculable, says Oliver Sambevski, press officer to the Macedonian Ministry of Culture.

After the evacuation of all Leshek village's population recently because of intensive military operations in the vicinity, the only inhabitants of the monastery were several priests serving at the Diocesan office of Polog and Kumanovo, which is situated in the Leshok Monastery. Archpriest Mirko Stankovski of the Tetovo Diocesan office said that 'The Church of St. Athanasius was built in 1924 and dedicated in 1936... it is situated in the ancient sanctuary from the 13th century and is protected by the Monuments Protection Law.'

The Macedonian Ministry of Interior accused Albanian extremists, the called NLA (National Liberation Army), of destroying the entry gate, the central cupola and the iconostasis to the monastery church of St. Athanasius.

However, representatives of the NLA stated that they did not destroy the church. KosovaLive agency reported on 21st August that an NLA commander said that 'they still have no precise information regarding the destruction of Leshak Monastery', but that their troops took 'extra measures' in preserving religious sites.

The explosion ruined the church building, destroyed several valuable icons and frescoes, the wood-carved altar, and severely damaged the tombstone of Kiril Pejcinovik, a 19th century Macedonian educator and enlighter. The site was visited by an OSCE team of observers immediately after the incident.

'This Monastery is precious to us for several reasons,' says Oliver Sambevski, the Macedonian Ministry of Culture press officer told Keston News Service on 22nd August from Skopje. 'One of them is that the site is recognised and registered as the Culture Monument, and another for its architectural beauty. It is also a cultural centre serving as a reminder of the early educational work in Macedonia that brought the European spirit to us in 18 century. The Monastery complex is consisted of several church buildings, a small museum and other objects. The monastery is not active, but it serves at the Diocesan office to the Metropolitan Kiril. His staff left the Monastery only ten days ago, after they were intimidated and threatened. This is a great tragedy to Macedonian culture.'

In a brief press statement, George Robertson, NATO Secretary-General condemned the church destruction: 'Attacks on places of worship are totally unacceptable and undermine the efforts of all those who are striving to restore peace and stability.'

Ganka Samoilovska Cvetanova, Minister of Culture of Macedonia wrote on 21st August to diplomats in Macedonia, EU ministers of culture, UNESCO and the Council of Europe asking them to: 'devote all your authority and influence to not tolerate future desecration... Be aware that the destruction of the monuments of culture does not represent an attack on a specific nation, it is an attack on the all-embracing conscience of the humankind.'

The Leshok Monastery complex is at the south-east lower side of the Shar mountain, close to military operations 8 km from Tetovo. It was founded in 13 century and rebuilt in 1818, when it became a cultural and educational centre for the whole of Macedonia. In a press statement issued regarding the church destruction the Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia Stefan stressed: 'I would like to ask whether this act is directed against the religion in this region and the Macedonian Orthodox population, against the Macedonian state or maybe against the recently signed Framework Agreements and the efforts to bring back peace in the country.'

It is possible that the perpetrators selected for destruction the most recently built church in the Monastery complex in an attempt to draw the international communities attention, and to stress that other, much older and more valuable buildings nearby are also a possible target. (END)