KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 11.00, 13 December 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
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MACEDONIA: WAS FIRE AT BITOLA MOSQUE ALSO ARSON?
Police are still investigating how a fire started late on 10 December at the
15th century Hamza Bej Mosque in Bitola, Macedonia's second largest
city. It damaged two entry rooms to the prayer area and spread to the roof.
Speaking to Keston News Service, the head of the Islamic Faith
Community in Macedonia refused to speculate on the cause of the fire
before the result of the investigation is known, but said there was �some
suspicion� about it. He also told Keston that the Islamic community had
experienced problems during 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. Macedonia�s President Boris Trajkovski recently
pledged his country's commitment to inter-religious harmony, despite the
burning of places of worship.

MACEDONIA: WAS FIRE AT BITOLA MOSQUE ALSO ARSON?

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service

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 Islamic Faith Community in Macedonia,
Jakub Selimoski, 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, Selimoski 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." Selimoski 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."

Selimoski 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," Selimoski 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)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.