The imprisonment of Archbishop John by the authorities of FYRO Macedonia is just the last sequence of the long running totalitarian policy of the former (?) communist state apparatus trying to control the Church.
All begun immediately after the communist takeover of Yugoslavia in 1945 (of which what is now Republic of Macedonia was part until 1991), when the new authorities started their hard line Marxist campaigns of trampling upon any kind of free religious expression. The situation was extremely severe in the southernmost federal unit of the country (known then as “Peoples Republic of Macedonia”) where the communists expelled the remaining bishops of the local Orthodox Church and succeeded in putting it under their submission. From 1945 till 1958 the government run the Church deprived of its own bishops (a situation absolutely unacceptable in the Orthodox Christian doctrine) through the medium of so called “Church – People’s Councils”, in which the most prominent laymen (that is to say the Party members, as was the case on the first of these “councils” held on 4 March in Skopje under the leadership of the communist president of Macedonia, comrade Metody Andonov Chento and the official representative of the Army, colonel Pance Nedeljkovic) had the last say on any matter. Then, the regime finally found its most suitable candidate for prelate of the local Orthodox Church in the person of the former Bishop of Toplica in Serbia, Dosithey, whom they appointed as the ruling hierarch of the Orthodox Church in the Yugoslav federal unit of Macedonia after extorting a semiofficial recognition of his post from the Serbian Patriarchate under which jurisdiction the Church in Macedonia was at that time.
To illustrate the miserable state to which the Church dwindled under the rule of Archbishop Dosithey we will use the example of Fr. Zhivko, an Orthodox priest from Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, who in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake (26 July 1963) stated during one of his sermons a sharply worded criticism on communist ideology and even made a remark that the earthquake could be considered as a Divine punishment for abandoning Christianity and accepting communism instead. Of course, he was quickly afterwards detained and tortured by the police, and when he finally left prison, he was immediately summoned to the Archbishop’s quarters, where Dosithey explicitly forbade him to speak up against communism. After that, Fr Zhivko illegally left the country and finally made his way to the United States, where he still serves as priest in an Orthodox parish in Detroit (may God grant him many years more).
In the meanwhile, the regime proceeded with appointment of communism friendly bishops in preparation for the final chapter of the great Socialist project – creating its own “communist Church”.
That day came on 19 July 1967 when the famed “Church – People’s Council” held in Ohrid decided to brake its ties with the Serbian Patriarchate and the Universal Orthodox Church proclaiming itself “autocephalous” (independent) under the name of “Macedonian Orthodox Church” (MOC) from every Orthodox Christian ecclesiastical body in the world (except, of course, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia). Comrade Done Ilievski, long serving communist official responsible for religious matters in Macedonia, in one of his books1 describes the background of this momentous event:
“Sometime in spring 1967 a meeting of high ranking officials was held in Belgrade consisted of comrades Kardelj, Stambolic, Vlahovic, Miyalko Todorovic, Dragi Stamenkovic, Nikola Mincev and Krste Crvenkovski, where it was decided to go for another council on which the old Ohrid Archbishopric would be proclaimed and all canonical relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church would be broken”.
Besides its immediate result of even more weakening the Orthodox Church in Yugoslavia and solidifying the government’s grip on the now completely isolated Church in Macedonia, the regime might have had and another motif. Namely, through this new entirely controlled by the regime “Macedonian Orthodox Church” the communist authorities could extend their influence and sway over the numerous Macedonian Diaspora in the free world, who were widely held to be anticommunist at that time. Needless to mention, Archbishop Dosithey for his efforts in the interest of the great Socialist Motherland the same year was awarded with the “medal of the Yugoslav flag with a ribbon”, handed down to him personally by the communist dictator of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito.
The following years were period of routine governing by the Communist Party of Macedonia over the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”. The legal framework has been arranged through the “Republic’s Commission for Relations with Religious Communities”, a government body which had the formal right to take part into the decision making of the “MOC”. For example, no single decision could be made by the Synod of “MOC” without the signature of the Commission’s official representative in the Synod (who was at the same time a member of the Party’s central committee). The last such representative was comrade Tito Belichanec, who held that post until the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. To make this newly created religious institution more popular with the people, the regime tried to connect “MOC” with issues of ethnic identity and nationalism, thus creating the dangerous concoction of ethnicity and religion, which shows to be disastrous even now. Of course, the high ranking clergy of the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” got its due share of worldly rewards for taking part in the state’s great religius project. Those who refused to do so were deposed or even worse… (there is the example of Archbishop Angelary who in 1986 died under mysterious circumstances in a car accident, but many people believe he was murdered for daring to disobey the communists).
Things started to change in the nineties, when communist Yugoslavia dissolved and Macedonia became an independent country. Many more people, especially the young, became interested in genuine Christianity and thus started pressuring the Church hierarchy (to which in those days some younger people were included) to rejoin the world wide Orthodox community and break away from government control. Finally, under their pressure, talks were being resumed with the Serbian Patriarchate to find a way for the Church in Macedonia to reestablish communion with the Universal Orthodox Church. These efforts were crowned on 17 May 2002 when an official delegation of the Synod of the Orthodox Church in Macedonia signed the “Agreement for Establishing Church Unity” with the representatives of the Serbian Patriarchate in the town of Nis, Serbia and Montenegro. But after the return of that delegation in the country, the government, backed by the old guard of high ranking clergy, fearing that the Church was slipping out of their control, fired back a brutal campaign of intimidation and terror, trying to force the Orthodox Church to back down on its resolution reestablish communion with the global Orthodox Community. And it worked! The Synod of MOC consented to the government requests, and abolished the Agreement which had previously signed.
But those Orthodox Christian faithful and clergy led by Archbishop John (than Metroplitan of Veles and Vardar valley) who refused the abandon the hardly won Church unity and independence from government control proceeded anyway towards the reunion. At last the communion with the Universal Orthodox Church was reestablished on 22 June 2002, an event which was greeted with immense joy by the Orthodox around the world (most notably Patriarch Alexis of the Russian Orthodox Church, see his “Letter” № 3727, 28 June 2002). The regime’s reaction was swift. Metropolitan John was forcibly and illegally (without a court injunction) evicted from his church on 6 July 2002 by armed police, the faithful were bitten up and in coordination with the state sponsored “MOC” the terror started against the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric (formed as a result of the mentioned reunion with the world wide Orthodox Church) which last to this day. It’s ironic that among the most brutal in the campaign of persecution against the Ohrid Archbishopric were those bishops of “MOC” who actually signed the “Nis Agreement” (Naum, Peter and Timothy), probably trying to redeem their selves by that in the eyes of the regime.
The ordeal continued with out stop. Here are just few examples of the persecution of the Orthodox Christians in Macedonia at the hands of the government and its state run “Church” (MOC):
During a religious service, held on a private property in the city of Bitola, on 11 January 2004, there was a raid of armed police officers (about thirty policemen), during which, without an explanation, numerous clerics and monks were arrested, including the Metropolitan Jovan (John), the bishop Marko, the abbots David and Maxim, the abbesses Kirana, Taisa, Olympiada, and, as we mentioned, a group of monks and nuns (!). All the arrested monks and nuns were illegally held in temporary arrest, in one room of the Bitola police station, longer than 24 hours, without having a charge raised against them, and during all that time they were left with no food or water, as well as with no sleep. At the same time, the Metropolitan Jovan was held in pre-trial detention for twenty days under the charge that “by celebrating a Liturgy with the participation of the abovementioned monks and nuns he performed the deed of instigation of national, racial and religious hatred.”
On that same day (11 January 2004), the police conducted an action, with which it forcefully evicted, without a court injunction and explanation (!!!), and without a deadline to move out, the monks and nuns of the following monasteries: the female monastery (convent) “Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God” near Resen, the male monastery “Saint Demetrius – Marko’s Monastery” near Skopje, the female monastery “Saint Elijah – Chardak” north of Skopje; and somewhat later, because of the inaccessibility of the terrain (13 January 2004), the armed police also evicted the monks of the monastery “Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God – Treskavec” near Prilep (again without a court decision or an injunction). It is notable that, during the conduct of all these actions, the police officers, in the private conversations they had with the evicted monks and nuns, claimed that these acts are performed at the request of the highest hierarchy of the state-sponsored “Macedonian Orthodox Church”. One of the police officers has even shown a written order (!) from the Archbishop Stephan, the prelate of the abovementioned “MOC”, in which he requests that the police evict the nuns from the monastery “Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God” near Resen, and on the basis of which the police undertook the action.
On 20 February, late in the evening, there was a raid of five masked men, armed with automatic weapons, into the monastery “Saint John Chrysostom”, on a private property in the village Nizepole, when the monastery was burned, and the two present nuns – sister Olympiada and the novice Danica were molested by the attackers, during which their hair was forcefully cut off. Until today the Macedonian police haven’t given any information on the possible identity of the attackers. One exception were some journalists, independent from the state control, who dared to give an opinion that, in fact, behind the attack were people from the State Agency for Security and Counterintelligence of the Republic of Macedonia in coordination with one of the Metropolitans of the state-sponsored “MOC”. However, these speculations still haven’t been confirmed.
On 1 July 2004, the court in Bitola, under the presidency of the judge Mishko Stojkovski, convicted the Metropolitan (now Archbishop) John to an eighteen-month sentence, proclaiming him to be guilty on account of the charge for “instigating national, racial and religious hatred.” In the verdict it stands written that the accused is proclaimed guilty for the abovementioned criminal act on the following three accounts:
- “because he accepted to be appointed an exarch (prelate) of the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric, with which he instigated national, racial and religious hatred”;
- “because he participated in the ordination of the bishops Joachim and Marko (the other two members of the Synod of the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric), with which he, once again, instigated national, racial and religious hatred”;
- “because on 11 January 2004 he performed a religious service – co-officiation and mutual communion with Maxim Risteski, abbot of the male monastery “St. Demitry” in Skopje, with Kirana Parlic, abbess of the monastery “Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God” in Resen, with David Ninov, abbot, with Goran Kimev, so-called episcope Marko in the inexistent Ohrid Archbishopric and the nuns Renata Mizimakovska, Crcorska Anisia, Georgieva Verica, Nina Trajkovska, Taisa Krceva and Cvetkovska Blagica, with which he instigated great religious hatred and intolerance in the citizens – believers from the “MOC” in Bitola and wider in the Republic of Macedonia.”
On 15 October 2004, somewhere before midnight, there was a raid of the armed, special police forces, followed by heavy machinery, with the help of which they unlawfully demolished the church “Life-giving Spring of the Most Holy Mother of God” which was under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric, built on a private property in the village Nizepole, near Bitola. The authorities pointed out that they had received seven (!) requests for demolition of the church by the bishop of “MOC” for Bitola, Peter.
An attempted lynch of the priest Borjan Vitanov from the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric, the dean Kliment Korobar and Mr. Zoran Georgiev and the biting up of Mr. Nikola Zahariev and finally the complete demolition of the chapel “St. Nectarius of Aegina” in Dracevo, Skopje, (12 July 2005) carried out by a mob led by Goran Karevski priest from the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” in the presence of the local police. Before this happened, Fr. Borjan on many occasions has been threatened by the local police officials to leave the premises of the Chapel and verbally was abused by them on religious grounds. Also, before the complete demolition of the object happened, it was a target of nine attacks involving desecration and vandalizing (most gruesome of which occurred 9 June 2005) which were promptly reported to the police which however showed complete disregard for the sort of destruction of private property owned by the members of Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric to the extent that it raises suspicions of possible police involvement in those acts of vandalism. Also this object was a target and of unauthorized raids by the police as happened on the Orthodox feast of Easter (1 May 2005, at one of clock in the morning) when the police officers entered the Chapel in the middle of the prayer service (without showing any court document which could justify that act) and started identifying the people present on the service.
At the end, on 17 July 2005 Archbishop John was put in prison on the basis of the already mentioned court decision from 1 July 2004.
Through all of this time, the raging religious persecution in Macedonia was met with sharp criticism by the representatives of the Orthodox Church in the world (Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Russian Patriarch Alexis, Archbishop of the Church of Greece Christodulos, Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the Americas, Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Mt Athos monastic community…), as well as of many human rights organizations (Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International…).
The struggle to free Archbishop John and to insure religious freedom in Republic of Macedonia is still going on…