In Macedonia, religion a weapon
Amid growing unrest, parliament is debating a referendum on the West-backed peace plan.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."