The government’s policies towards minority religious groups and its implementation of the registration process led to complaints of favoritism and politicization of religion. There was no progress on the restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav government.
Members of the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, which has a following of approximately 100 members but is recognized by the Serbian Orthodox Church as the sole legitimate autonomous Orthodox Church in Macedonia, stated that the government subjected them to media harassment and undue monitoring due to their refusal to recognize the MOC-OA’s complete independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church (autocephaly). In August Skopje Basic Court I found several members of the group, including its leader, Jovan Vraniskovski, guilty of money laundering. While his co-defendants were given two-year suspended sentences, Vraniskovski, a former bishop of the MOC-OA who had been defrocked and previously imprisoned for embezzlement related to the same case, was sentenced to three years in prison. A Supreme Court decision in February upheld Vraniskovski’s previous embezzlement charges, and his followers responded by filing an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights on October 31.
Most other religious groups stated that the government favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique tax privileges, public properties free of charge, funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches, and exclusive invitations for its representatives to attend government functions. Moreover, other religious groups said the ruling coalition’s dominant ethnic Macedonian and predominantly Orthodox party politicized religion 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. The MOC-OA denied any affiliation with the government and said that the church does not involve itself in politics. Smaller religious organizations also stated that religious organizations not listed in the constitution are not treated as equal to the five named organizations.
Some within the government and the Muslim community stated that the ICM also benefited from close ties to the government. As an example, they cited the government’s grant to the ICM of direct liaison responsibility with Saudi Arabian consular officials for the issuance of visas for the Hajj. These individuals stated further that this right allowed the ICM to charge disproportionate fees of approximately 400 euros ($551) to validate applications for the otherwise free visas issued by Saudi Arabia for Hajj participation.
Some groups complained of political influence in the religious registration process. Skopje Basic Court II had no applications pending from previous years, and it did not receive any new applications for registration during the year. The Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo), an Islamic Sufi order, continued a long-running property dispute with the ICM in Tetovo. As a consequence of the Bektashi community’s inability to register as an official religious organization, the community cannot make independent claims to Islamic religious property. The ICM continued to occupy most of the Harabati Baba teqe compound in Tetovo claimed by the Bektashi, limiting the Bektashis’ ability to worship there. Judicial officials stated that the court denied the Bektashi Community of Macedonia’s registration application because it was “incomplete.” However, the Bektashi stated that the court denied their application because of political interference from the ICM and the government.
In January the Bektashi Community of Macedonia submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the 2012 Constitutional Court ruling that declared the Bektashi’s discrimination-based appeal regarding the denial of their registration “inadmissible for review.”
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 self-declared Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid was awaiting a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights regarding its application to register as a recognized religious organization, which courts had denied on the legal grounds that it could not substantiate the difference between its name and symbols and those of the MOC-OA.
In September the Ministry of Interior (MOI) responded to complaints from the ICM that an imam in the village of Dobrosinci of the Vasilevo Municipality had been harassed in July by two local citizens, one a municipal employee, regarding the noise level of his mosque’s loudspeakers during call to prayer, and physically attacked by the same men in September. The MOI issued a written warning to one of the men and a verbal warning to the other. The ICM called the MOI’s response “too lenient.” The CRRCG reported they received over 100 complaints every week regarding noise levels during the call to prayer and indicated that the government was considering more stringent regulation of noise from religious structures such as mosques and churches.
The government had previously restituted all Jewish communal property and almost all churches and many mosques to the appropriate religious groups. Several religious groups, however, have not regained full ownership of other properties expropriated during the communist era. A complicating factor in restitution or compensation claims was that seized properties often changed hands or were developed after expropriation.
The ICM reiterated it was not able to regain the rightful use of several mosques that the government had agreed to return. In addition, the ICM continued to state that in some cases the government blocked 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 did not restitute the site of the Burmali mosque, demolished in the 1920s, to the ICM. The ICM repeated its claim 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. The government, however, argued that the Law on Restitution only applied to properties nationalized after 1945.
Local and national authorities continued to block reconstruction of a mosque in Prilep, destroyed during the 2001 conflict, and construction of a mosque in the village of Lazhec. The ICM said that it continued to meet with government officials to resolve property issues. However, the ICM boycotted a government-sponsored international conference in May on interfaith dialogue due to the bias the ICM perceived the government held against the ICM, its reconstruction projects, and restitution claims.
Several small religious groups complained of bureaucratic obstacles to construction or ownership of houses of worship, which they stated were deliberately designed to make it difficult to construct new religious facilities 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. In June the Jehovah’s Witnesses community filed new lawsuits regarding the transfer, and court decisions were pending at year’s end. The community stated its missionaries were subject to occasional harassment by police when distributing religious material.
The trial of six ethnic Albanian Muslims for the April 2012 murder of five ethnic Macedonians of the Orthodox faith near the village of Smiljkovci continued at year’s end. The six continued to be portrayed as Islamic terrorists by some media outlets and some government officials.