In Macedonia, religion a weapon

Amid growing unrest, parliament is debating a referendum on the West-backed peace plan.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As the NATO mandate nears its scheduled close next week, parliament is to debate a controversial proposal today to put the country's peace accord to a public vote. Meanwhile, observers say the peace plan is undermined by reports of more clashes between government forces and ethnic Albanians.

To ethnic Albanians, 95 percent of whom are Muslim, the conflict is about gaining constitutional equality as a minority; to ethnic Macedonians, it is about clinging to a fragile national identity as Orthodox Christians.

"Rabid dogs and wild beasts are trying to swallow us and occupy our country," shouted a speaker at a demonstration this month in Skopje. "We have no strong leaders ... only the Church will enforce justice in Macedonia." The crowd of several thousand erupted in cheers, shaking their fists and Bibles at the darkened windows of parliament, which early this month passed the first of three votes granting wider rights to ethnic Albanians.

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Though strong nationalist rhetoric is standard here, injection of religious language represents an ominous change in Macedonia. Over recent months, religion, which fueled the Bosnian war, has joined Macedonia's already muddy mixture of troubles.

"Religion counts more than ethnicity now," says Afrim Aliju, a leader of the Islamic Community in Skopje. "There is a lot of pressure to make this a religious war, but we can't allow that to happen. Religion in war is like gasoline on a fire."

Many mosques and churches have registered sharply increased attendance, and some religious leaders have openly encouraged their congregations to take up arms. Since March, at least 46 mosques have been demolished and two churches have been bombed.

"Unfortunately, religion is now being used as one of the most powerful weapons in this war," says Slobodan Casula, a Macedonian political analyst. "Churches and mosques are being destroyed, and people are invoking God to justify their actions. Religious extremists are threatening to take us back into a bloody war, and if that happens it will be a war of religion, a crusade."

Many analysts accuse Ljube Boskovski, the popular hard-line minister of the interior, of inciting religious animosity and wrapping himself in the mantle of Orthodox Christianity. By contrast, President Boris Trajkovski, a Methodist elected on the balance of Muslim votes and vehemently opposed by the Orthodox Church, has lost popularity among ethnic Macedonians.

Meanwhile, the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army claims to have no special affinity for Islam, citing Orthodox and Catholic Albanian minorities, but it has often held positions, headquarters, and snipers' nests in village mosques. In addition, the NLA demands that Islam be given constitutional equality with the Orthodox Church, a move that Archbishop Gospadin Gospadin Stevan says "undermines Christianity."

His concern echoes the uncertainty of many ethnic Macedonians, who fear their cultural identity will be weakened by the Western-brokered peace plan now before parliament. Local commentators predict the accord would divide and eventually dissolve the country. In response, Macedonians rally, not around the tenuous sovereignty of their 10-year-old republic, but around the Eastern Orthodox Church - their bulwark through centuries of Ottoman Turk rule.

"Macedonians as a people have been threatened by Muslim domination for centuries, and it is the church that held our people together," says Tihomir Ilievski, a Macedonian diplomat. "The church is the basis for our history, traditions - and the future of our state."

Ironically, the Macedonian church is not officially recognized by the rest of the Orthodox Christian world, which frustrates Orthodox Macedonians. Also, the European Commission initially refused to recognize newly independent Macedonia in 1992, and Greece slapped an embargo on the tiny country for two years. The church quickly became a symbol of national resilience.

Now, Macedonians say that symbol has been shaken like never before. One of the most important Orthodox churches in Macedonia, a 13th-century monastery chapel in the village of Lesok, was blown up in late August. Each side in the conflict blames the other for the church's destruction, but foreign analysts say it is "extremely unlikely" that a Macedonian would strike such an important national monument.

"The church means everything to Macedonians," says Ivan, an ethnic-Macedonian farmer from Lesok, who didn't want to give his full name. "There is no Macedonian people without the Orthodox Church. That's why the Albanians blew up our church, to destroy the Macedonian people. Now, we will take revenge and wipe Macedonia clean of Muslim scum."

Similar sentiments have led to violence in the southern towns of Bitola and Prilep after a group of local Macedonian soldiers were killed by the NLA in May. At the funeral of six soldiers from Bitola, Bishop Petar, a member of Macedonia's Orthodox Holy Senate, called for revenge against Muslims. In the following days, mobs demolished 100 Muslim homes and shops in Bitola and burned a 14th-century mosque in Prilep.

Yet, both Bitola and Prilep have very few ethnic-Albanian inhabitants, and the victims of the attacks were mainly ethnic-Macedonian Muslims (called Torbeshi), who make up a 150,000-strong minority.

"The ethnic-Macedonian Muslims get the worst of it," says Vladimir Milcin, head of the Skopje office of the Open Society Fund. "They are in a sandwich between two pressures: Albanians who want them to declare themselves to be Albanians to bolster their numbers, and Macedonians who say you can't be Macedonian unless you are Orthodox."

Jakub Selimovski, a Torbeshi man who speaks in lilting, old-fashioned Macedonian, is director of Islamic Community's culture and religion department. "We are not accepted in Macedonia anymore," he says, indicating an newspaper clipping showing 10 more Torbeshi families forced to flee their homes last week. "The relations between people in this country have been destroyed. Trust no longer exists."

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