There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom.
Members of other religious groups asserted that the government favored the MOC-OA by granting it public properties free of charge, providing funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches, and inviting representatives of the MOC-OA but not of other groups to attend groundbreaking ceremonies and other functions. Moreover, they accused the ruling coalition’s dominant ethnic Macedonian party, which is predominantly Orthodox, of politicizing religious issues for its own political gain by appealing to the religious beliefs and identity of the country’s majority and by using the MOC-OA as a tool to that end.
Some groups complained of political influence in the religious registration process. The dominant MOC-OA remained the sole registered Orthodox group due to the requirement that religious groups seeking recognition not have names or symbols similar to those of an already registered group. The Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo), an Islamic Sufi order involved in a long-running property dispute with the ICM, continued to be unable to register, which inhibited restitution of the Bektashi compound in Tetovo. The ICM continued to occupy most of the Tetovo compound, limiting Bektashi ability to worship.
During the year, the court approved one new applicant group, Ehli Sunet Vel Xhemat (a Sunni Muslim order previously rejected for registration), bringing the total number of registered religious groups to 30. The Commission for Relations with Religious Communities and Groups stated that it did not have any other pending applications; however, the Bektashi Community of Macedonia’s application was still awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court.
Restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav government remained a pending issue. The government has restituted almost all churches and many mosques to the appropriate religious groups, but several religious groups have not regained full ownership of other properties expropriated by the communist regime. A complicating factor in restitution or compensation claims was that the seized properties often changed hands or were developed since confiscation. The ICM stated it was not able to regain rightful use of several mosques that the government had agreed to return. In addition, the ICM alleged that in some cases the government delayed the process of restitution by selling or starting new construction on disputed property or by disputing the historical legal claim of the ICM to religious properties. The government has not restituted the site of the Burmali mosque, demolished in the 1920s, to the ICM. The ICM stated that the government refused to restitute this property because the ruling coalition’s ethnic Macedonian party and the MOC-OA could not accept the prospect of a new mosque in Skopje’s city center. Local and national authorities continued to delay reconstruction of a mosque in Prilep, destroyed during the 2001 conflict, and construction of a mosque in the village of Lazhec. The ICM continued to meet with government officials to seek to resolve property issues.
Several small religious groups complained of bureaucratic obstacles to construction or ownership of houses of worship, making it difficult to construct new churches or to enlarge existing structures. The municipal government continued to block the transfer of ownership of a meeting hall near Kriva Palanka to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Members of the self-declared Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, recognized by the Serbian Orthodox Church as the sole legitimate autonomous Orthodox Church in Macedonia, alleged that the government subjected them to media harassment and undue monitoring due to their religious beliefs. In May the Ministry of Justice accused several members of the group, including its leader, Jovan Vraniskovski, of money laundering. The authorities transferred Vraniskovski, a former bishop of the MOC-OA who was defrocked and imprisoned for embezzlement, to a detention facility, where, at year’s end, he awaited trial on the new charges. Members of the group claimed conditions at the facility were unacceptable. The Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid did not recognize the MOC-OA’s self-declared autocephaly.
In May police detained a large group of Muslims of ethnic Albanian origin in connection with the murder of five ethnic Macedonian Orthodox men in Smiljkovci. Government and police officials immediately depicted the suspects as radical Islamic terrorists, a characterization widely disseminated in the local and international media. By year’s end, the authorities had released eleven suspects, sentenced three to prison for illegal arms possession, and continued to detain four. Two remained at large. The trial against the four detainees began in December and continued at year’s end. The government did not offer evidence to substantiate its allegations that religion was a factor in the crime. In May thousands of Muslims of various ethnicities rallied against the arrest and the characterization of the suspects as Islamic terrorists.