Summary Paragraph: In March a court convicted the archbishop who heads the OAO of money laundering and ruled the state could confiscate OAO land, which the state did. The ECHR ruled the government violated the OAO’s rights by refusing it registration and ordered it to pay the religious group 9,500 euros ($11,400). A court approved the registration of two religious groups, while two other applications remained pending. The government did not restitute any previously-confiscated properties during the year to religious groups. The ICM reported the government continued to block construction of a mosque in Lazhec and reconstruction of a mosque in Prilep. An unregistered preschool closed after the government investigated it in July and said it had carried out unauthorized religious activities. A school lifted a ban on the wearing of headscarves by students after intervention by the ombudsman. Smaller religious groups said the government treated them unequally, and the ICM said the government favored the MOC-OA. Civil society and smaller religious groups stated the previous government of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) politicized religion and interfered in religious matters. MOC-OA clergy participated in VMRO-DPMNE political events, and the ICM participated in support of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) and Movement Besa parties.
According to various university professors, nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders, and legal and political analysts, religious differences continued to play a role in criminal and civil court cases. In March Skopje Basic Court convicted Archbishop Jovan Vraniskovski, the head of the OAO, of money laundering. The court sentenced Vraniskovski to seven months in prison and acquitted two other defendants. The court also ruled the state could confiscate OAO land valued at 140,000 euros ($168,000), which it did. The court ordered Vraniskovski’s release after sentencing based on time he had served in prison after an earlier conviction on the same charge. Vraniskovski was originally convicted in a money laundering case in 2015, but the Supreme Court vacated the conviction and sent the case to the lower court for retrial. The OAO accused the government of bias in the case and stated the previous government had ordered the court to “convict Vraniskovski at any cost,” while his lawyer cited what he said were substantive and procedural irregularities in the case. These included the court’s failure to take into account the recommendations of the Supreme Court to determine the origin of the acquired property and money, political interference, and the absence of a written verdict.
Separately the OAO had been awaiting a ruling from the ECHR regarding its application to register as a recognized religious organization, which national courts had denied on grounds that it could not substantiate the difference between its name and symbols and those of the MOC-OA. On November 16, the ECHR ruled in favor of the OAO, stating that, by refusing to register the OAO (commonly referred to locally as “the Church of defrocked Bishop Jovan Vraniskovski”) as a separate religious group, the government had violated the OAO’s right of assembly and freedom of religion and conscience. The ECHR further stated the government had violated the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which includes an obligation to act in a neutral and unbiased manner towards religious groups. The ECHR ordered the government to pay 4,500 euros ($5,400) in compensation and 5,000 euros ($6,000) for court expenses to the OAO. By year’s end the government had not paid either sum.
The Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo), an Islamic Sufi order, continued to await an ECHR ruling on its 2013 appeal to overturn the Constitutional Court’s denial of its registration. The country’s Helsinki Committee stated the ECHR had not yet ruled in the Bektashi case because it was reviewing the case with three others of a similar nature before offering a ruling. The Bektashi community reported an ECHR official had visited to discuss the case during the year. The government continued to issue visas to foreign members and spiritual leaders of the Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo).
In May Basic Court Skopje II approved the registration of the Church of Scientology of Macedonia, and the Home of Prayer religious group. Applications from the Christian Community in Macedonia and the Community of Muslims remained pending.
In August the OAO issued a statement alluding to the U.S. government’s report on international religious freedom in the country for 2016, citing from the report the past imprisonment of Archbishop Vraniskovski and the Helsinki Committee’s statement the archbishop was a political prisoner. It also cited references in the report to statements by various sources that religious differences played a role in criminal and civil court cases and references by religious groups that the government favored the MOC-OA.
The government did not restitute any properties to religious groups during the year that the state had previously confiscated, and religious groups, including the Muslim and Catholic communities, reported continuing problems with property restitution. For example, the ICM stated the government had only restored 15 percent of property the state previously seized, and that it was still seeking ownership rights to the Yeni Mosque in Bitola, which the state declared a cultural monument and seized in 1950. The Catholic Church continued to call on the government to return a property the state seized before the communist era in the southern village of Paliurci, where the Church wanted to build a church and a monastery. The dispute over the Paliurci property had been continuing in the courts for 10 years.
The ICM stated the government continued to prevent construction of a mosque in the ethnically mixed village of Lazhec by denying a construction permit because of pressure from local residents opposed to the mosque. The ICM also reported the government continued to block reconstruction of the mosque in Prilep, which burned down during armed conflict in 2001. According to the ICM, the government denied a permit to rebuild the mosque on the grounds that the Prilep site was a monument of culture under the government’s jurisdiction. The ICM also said local authorities in Kriva Palanka opposed construction of a mosque there.
The MOC-OA stated the Municipality of Struga had not issued a decision on the construction of an Orthodox church in the village of Belica and that the Municipality of Tetovo refused to build a road leading to the city chapel. The application had been pending since 2013.
In July the Ministry of Social and Labor policy initiated an investigation into an unregistered Muslim religious preschool. During the first inspection, the ministry found that “both the children and two teachers confirmed that religious activities were part of the preschool’s education program,” which was not permitted by law. The ICM condemned the “abuse of children,” and said it would work to institutionally combat what it called unlawful establishments such as that one. The preschool closed without further government intervention.
In September the Committee on Protection from Discrimination, a government advisory body appointed by parliament, and the ombudsman determined Muslim elementary school students from Ohrid were discriminated against for their religious beliefs and attire after being told they could not attend class wearing headscarves. After intervention by the ombudsman, the school lifted its headscarf ban and allowed the students to attend classes.
The ICM stated the government favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique privileges, such as providing it with public properties free of charge, funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches, and exclusive invitations for its representatives to attend government functions. The MOC-OA denied allegations of favoritism, but said such a perception might exist, since it was the largest religious community in the country. Additionally, the MOC-OA denied any affiliation with the outgoing VMRO-DPMNE government and stated it did not involve itself in politics.
Smaller religious organizations, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Church, Bektashi Community (Tetovo), and OAO continued to state the government did not treat them as equals of the five religious organizations recognized in the constitution. For example, they stated the government excluded them from official events, such as official holiday celebration events or government building ground-breaking ceremonies, and did not grant them the same level of access to government officials. The OAO and the Bektashi said that, as unregistered communities, they often faced discrimination and intimidation.
Some civil society groups, such as the country’s Helsinki Committee, and smaller religious communities, including the Protestant Evangelical Church and the Bektashi, stated the previous VMRO-DPMNE government interfered in religious matters and often politicized religion. According to media reporting, MOC-OA clergy participated in progovernment rallies and political functions, including protests, before the formation of the new government, which assumed office on June 1, and in campaign events for the VMRO-DPMNE before October local elections. Other political parties and civil society organizations stated the MOC-OA violated the government’s ban on interference by religious communities in state affairs. Media also reported the ICM participated in events in support of DUI, an ethnic Albanian party, and, to a lesser degree, the Movement Besa party. A June field research report on the levels of religious tolerance, jointly conducted by the ZIP Institute, the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation, and Civica Mobilitas, cited abuses of religious discourse and politicization of religious components, primarily by the MOC-OA and the ICM. In addition, a joint survey by the Institute for Political Research Skopje and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation concluded that political parties, especially Movement Besa, used religion for political purposes.
A Muslim doctor from Gostivar reported border police continued to subject him to harassment and undue scrutiny, most recently in September, because of his long beard and the short pants he wore for religious reasons, which delayed his border crossings whenever he entered and exited the country.
From June to July, following the lapse of the government’s memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs facilitated negotiations between the ICM and the Saudi government to allow pilgrims to obtain visas to travel on the Hajj.
During a meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in July, representatives of the Catholic Church voiced concerns about procedural delays in obtaining visas and residence permits for foreign clergy.
The CRRCG reported it issued letters of consent to all foreign missionaries and clerics who submitted requests for religious work during the year.