The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality of rights for all citizens regardless of religious belief. It guarantees freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their faith freely and in public, individually or with others. It guarantees the religious identity of nationalities and communities in the country. The state recognizes the five religious groups specifically cited in the constitution: the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Jewish Community. The law allows other religious organizations to obtain the same legal rights and status as these five groups by applying for government recognition and registration through the courts. The constitution states the five named religious groups “and other religious communities and groups” are separate from the state, equal before the law, and free to establish schools, charities, and other social institutions. The constitution bars political parties or other associations from inciting religious hatred or intolerance.
The government has granted legal recognition to 33 religious organizations (consisting of 16 churches, nine religious communities, and eight religious groups). Once registered, a church, religious community, or religious group is exempted from taxes and is eligible to apply for property restitution for those properties nationalized during the communist era, government-funded projects, and construction permits for preservation of shrines and cultural sites. It may also establish schools. Failure to register does not prevent a religious group from holding meetings or proselytizing, or result in legal punishment or fines, but prevents the group from engaging in certain activities, such as establishing schools or receiving donations that are tax-deductible for the donor.
Religious organizations may apply to register as a “church,” a “religious community,” or a “religious group.” These classifications are based on group size, internal organization, and internal hierarchy. According to judicial authorities, these three categories are treated equally before the law and do not bestow different legal rights, benefits, or obligations. Skopje Basic Court II accepts registration applications and has 15 business days to determine whether a religious organization’s application meets the legal registration criteria. These criteria are: a physical administrative presence within the country, an explanation of its beliefs and practices that distinguish it from other religious organizations, and a unique name and official insignia. An applicant organization must also identify a supervisory body in charge of managing its finances and submit a breakdown of its financial assets and funding sources and minutes from its founding meeting. The law allows multiple groups of a single faith to register. Registered leaders or legal representatives of religious groups must be citizens of the country.
The court sends approved applications to the Committee on Relations between Religious Communities and Groups (CRRCG), a government body responsible for fostering cooperation and communication between the government and religious groups, which adds the organization to its registry. If the application is denied, the organization may appeal the decision to the State Appellate Court. If the State Appellate Court denies the application, the organization may file a human rights petition with the Constitutional Court on grounds of denial of religious rights. If the Constitutional Court denies the petition, the organization may appeal the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The law does not permit religious groups to operate primary schools, but allows them at the secondary level and above. The Ministry of Education requires sixth-grade students and above to take one of three elective courses, two of which have religious content: Introduction to Religions and Ethics in Religion. According to the ministry’s description, these courses teach religion in an academic, nondevotional manner. The courses are usually taught by priests or imams. The Ministry of Education states that all teachers of these subjects receive training from accredited higher education institutions taught by professors of philosophy or sociology. If students do not wish to take a course on religion, they may take the third option, Classical Culture in European Civilization.
All foreigners who seek to enter the country to carry out religious work or perform religious rites must obtain a work visa before arrival, a process that normally takes approximately four months. The CRRCG maintains a register of all foreign religious workers and has the authority to approve or deny them the right to conduct religious work within the country. Work visas are valid for six months, with the option to renew for an additional six months. Subsequent visa renewals are valid for one year. There is no limit to the number of visa renewals a religious worker may be issued. Clergy and religious workers from unregistered groups may be issued visas.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
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. An example was the retrial of the head of the OAO, Archbishop Jovan Vraniskovski, for money laundering, which began on January 28 but was immediately postponed until March 11, and then postponed again to allow prosecutors to interview witnesses. The court had not set a new hearing date by year’s end. In May of the previous year, the Supreme Court had vacated Vraniskovski’s money laundering conviction based on substantive and procedural irregularities, sending the case back for retrial. Vraniskovski had already spent three years in prison before he was paroled in February 2015. If convicted again at retrial, he would be given credit for jail time already served. OAO representatives stated the trial was politically motivated and intentionally delayed, while the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights called Vraniskovski a political prisoner. The OAO complained that the process was religious persecution and stated that the court’s refusal to unblock the bank accounts of the Anastasija Association, OAO’s registered civic association, impeded the OAO from functioning properly. The prosecution stated the Anastasija Association was used by Vraniskovski for illegal activity. At year’s end, the case was still pending retrial before Basic Court Skopje I.
Separately, the OAO was 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.
The ECHR completed its hearing of the case but had yet to issue a verdict by year’s end. Father David from the OAO, which the Serbian Orthodox Church recognized as the sole legitimate autonomous Orthodox Church in the country, stated the government had subjected the OAO to media harassment and undue monitoring due to the OAO’s refusal to recognize the MOC-OA’s complete independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Basic Court Skopje II received four religious registration applications and approved one, from the Evangelical Protestant Church. The court rejected the application of the Bektashi Community of Kichevo. Applications from the Christian Community in Macedonia and the Community of Muslims remained pending.
The Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo), an Islamic Sufi order, continued to await an ECHR ruling on its 2013 appeal asking the ECHR to overturn the Constitutional Court’s rejection of the community’s appeal of the denial of its registration. The Helsinki Committee reported the ECHR had not yet ruled in the Bektashi case because it was reviewing the case with others of a similar nature before offering a ruling. The Bektashi community reported an ECHR official visited them to discuss the case during the year. The government continued to issue visas to foreign members of the Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo).
Smaller religious organizations not listed in the constitution, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Evangelical Church, the Bektashi Community (Tetovo), and the OAO said that, although they were registered, the government did not treat them as equals with 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 for requested meetings. Additionally, the ICM, one of the five officially recognized religious groups in the constitution, 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 any affiliation with the government and stated it did not involve itself in politics.
A Muslim doctor from Gostivar reported border police continued to subject him to harassment and undue scrutiny because of his long beard and short pants he wore for religious reasons, which delayed his border crossings whenever he entered and exited the country.
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 reported the government also 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 religious culture.
Religious groups, including the Muslim and Catholic communities, reported that restitution of property previously confiscated by the state was a problem. For example, by year’s end, the ICM was still seeking ownership rights to the Yeni Mosque in Bitola, which the state declared a monument of religious culture and had taken ownership of in 1950. The Catholic Church also called on the government to denationalize a property seized before the communist era in the southern village of Paliurci, where it wanted to build a church and a monastery. The dispute over the Paliurci property had been ongoing in the courts for 10 years.
Responding to a 2015 request from the ombudsman’s office, the Ministry of Education Inspectorate investigated and determined that a student march a public school organized in Bitola in celebration of what the media called “good Orthodox holidays” was not a planned activity. The inspectorate reprimanded four elementary schools and their teaching staff.
ICM leadership continued to report that it believed its leaders’ telephones were being tapped illegally.
Civil society groups, such as the Helsinki Committee, and smaller religious communities, including the Protestant Evangelical Church and the Bektashi, stated the government interfered in religious matters and often politicized religion. For example, on February 15, government officials, including Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev, ministers, mayors, and members of parliament of the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity party (VMRO-DPMNE), participated in a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a large, Russian-style MOC-OA church and complex of related buildings in the Zelezara neighborhood of Skopje. Central and local government officials had previously facilitated the construction and the MOC-OA’s acquisition of land and permits.
On February 28, police intervened to prevent a clash between MOC-OA members and Muslim opponents of the construction of a 180-foot cross in Butel, an ethnically mixed Albanian and Macedonian municipality of Skopje. The head of the CRRCG called on citizens to avoid confrontations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors helped broker an agreement that halted the construction of the cross. In September the Constitutional Court rejected an initiative by the political party Movement for Reforms – Albanian Democratic Party (LR-PDSH) to assess the legality and constitutionality of the cross construction, stating lack of jurisdiction.
The Ministry of Justice Department for Criminal and Civil Legislation, with assistance from the OSCE, worked on a draft of new hate crimes legislation that included religiously motivated acts. At year’s end, the draft legislation was still not completed.
The CRRCG reported it issued letters of consent to all foreign missionaries and clerics who submitted requests for religious work during the year.