MACEDONIA: Was Fire At Bitola Mosque Also Arson?

Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service, 13 December 2001

Police are still investigating how a fire started late on 10 December at the Hamza Bej Mosque in Bitola, Macedonia's second largest city close to the south-western borders with Albania and Greece. Two entry rooms to the prayer area were damaged by fire, as well as the roof. Locally-based officials of NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who have deplored the latest in a series of attacks on and burning of places of worship amid continuing ethnic tension, are waiting for the investigation to establish whether the fire was accidental or deliberate. The head of the education department of the Islamic Faith Community in Macedonia, Selim Jakuboski, was equally cautious. "There is some suspicion, but we do not want to speculate whether the fire was started deliberately or not, nor what the reasons behind it might be if it was deliberate," he told Keston News Service. "We wish to wait until officials announce what happened."

Speaking by telephone from the Macedonian capital Skopje on 12 December, Jakuboski reported that the fire started in the front part of the 15th century mosque in the two auxiliary rooms in front of the prayer room, adding that the roof then caught fire. "This mosque - one of the oldest in Macedonia - was reopened only last year after two years' reconstruction. The believers have cleared the site and we are performing Ramadan prayers there again." Jakuboski added that the Hamza Bej mosque had been stoned several days earlier and many of the windows broken.

"Our monitors contacted the mayor of the city and he said that there is minor damage to the mosque," Florin Pasnicu, spokesperson for the OSCE Spillover Monitoring Mission to Skopje, told a press-conference in the capital on 11 December. "But this is the statement of the mayor of the city and this is all the detail we have." Pasnicu reported that an investigation is underway, adding that "we deplore the losses inflicted by such acts".

Speaking on the same occasion, Craig Ratcliff, NATO spokesperson in Skopje, also deplored the damage to the mosque. "It is unfortunate that any individual would target any religious or cultural institution or shrine in any act - however you consider it - as we do as a criminal act, whether it is intentional or accidental."

Jakuboski told Keston that the Islamic community had experienced "many problems" in the summer, when mosques in Bitola were attacked in what many believe were acts of revenge against the ethnic Albanian population, which is mainly Muslim, after the rebel uprising in western Macedonia. "That night on 6 June the mob attacked the Hasan-baba Mosque and desecrated, damaged and destroyed many valuable tombstones with inscriptions and calligraphy," Jakuboski reported. "The Islamic community building was vandalised and burned as well. The greatest damage was done to the 16th century Isakija Mosque, where a fire was started by setting light to a carpet, but it did not develop because of the stone floor and thanks to our believers living in the neighbourhood who ran to help." He also cited attacks at the same time on two "more valuable cultural monuments", the Arabati Baba Teke (house of prayer) and the Coloured Mosque, both in the north-western town of Tetovo.

In a statement in the wake of the 8 December burning of St George's Orthodox church near Tetovo (see KNS 11 December 2001), Boris Trajkovski, the president of Macedonia, pledged his country's commitment to inter-religious harmony, despite the burning of places of worship. "The Republic of Macedonia on the grounds of its tradition will exist as a joint house of different religions and cultures, taking care and respecting the feelings and the religious affiliation of all its citizens." (END)