Macedonia, an important geopolitical center of the Balkans since ancient times, has for centuries been a focal point of territorial rivalries involving Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece.
While Macedonia was under Ottoman administration, the Orthodox church there was part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. When Turkish rule was ended following the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, southern Macedonia became part of Greece. But northern Macedonia, inhabited by Slavs who called themselves Macedonians because of the name of the area in which they lived, was incorporated into the newly formed kingdom of Yugoslavia. By agreement with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Orthodox in this northern area were integrated into the Serbian Patriarchate and reorganized into three dioceses.
When the communists took power in Yugoslavia following World War II, they decided to reorganize Yugoslavia on a federal basis and provided for the creation of a separate Macedonian Republic. The communists supported the aspirations of some Macedonians who wished to assert their separate identity, in order to gain their backing for the new government.
During the same period, the government supported efforts by some Orthodox in the Macedonian Republic to establish a separate Macedonian Orthodox Church. In October 1958 an Ecclesiastical and National Council of 220 priests and laity was held in Ohrid that declared the restoration of the ancient Archbishopric of Ohrid and the autonomy of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. It also elected three new bishops for the three dioceses of the church. This was considered an irregular election, as only one bishop was present. But the new church declared itself in canonical unity with the Serbian Orthodox Church in the person of the Serbian Patriarch. In June 1959 the Serbian Holy Synod accepted this fait accompli, and the next month the three bishops-elect were consecrated by Serbian Orthodox bishops.
In the autumn of 1966, the Macedonian Orthodox Church formally petitioned the Serbian Patriarchate for autocephalous status. But when it met in May 1967, the Serbian episcopate rejected this request.
Nevertheless, the Macedonians went forward and held a council in Ohrid from July 17 to 19, 1967. On July 19, acting on a resolution of the council, the Holy Synod of the Church of Macedonia proclaimed the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in the Republic of Macedonia. The Metropolitan was given the new title of “Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia.” All this was openly supported by the state authorities, who gave the new Metropolitan state honors and attended his installation ceremonies.
In September 1967 the Serbian Orthodox Synod declared the Macedonian Orthodox Church to be a schismatic religious organization and broke off all liturgical and canonical links with its hierarchy, although not with its faithful. This decision has been supported by other Orthodox churches, as none has recognized the legitimacy of the Macedonian church. More recently, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has stated that the autocephaly of the Macedonian Church cannot be recognized because of the clear political factors involved.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia led to Macedonia’s independence in 1991, recognized by most of the international community as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). In December of that year, Archbishop Gavril (d. 1996) resigned his post as head of the church, possibly because of tensions within the hierarchy concerning the church’s canonical status. But he was persuaded to withdraw his resignation after the Holy Synod assured him of its confidence.
Serbian Patriarch Pavle received a delegation of Macedonian Orthodox bishops in mid-1992 to discuss the church’s status, but no progress was made. In 2002 an agreement between the two churches was drafted that would have restored the Macedonian church to canonical status as an autonomous church within the Serbian Patriarchate, but its terms were rejected by the Macedonian Holy Synod.
In May 2005 the Serbian Orthodox Church formally reestablished its own jurisdiction in Macedonia, creating an autonomous Archdiocese of Ohrid along the lines of the failed 2002 agreement. The Serbian Holy Synod named former Macedonian Orthodox bishop Jovan Vraniskovski as Archbishop, and two auxiliary bishops as well. The FYROM government, which supports the Macedonian church’s autocephaly, refused to register the very small Serbian jurisdiction. Jovan himself began an 18 month prison sentence in late 2005 after being convicted of charges that his religious activity was offensive to members of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and that he had violated the law by “inciting religious and ethnic hatred.” After winning an appeal, he was released after 220 days.
By 2007 there were ten active bishops in the Macedonian Orthodox Church, seven of them heading the seven dioceses in the country, plus three titular bishops who administered the three dioceses in the diaspora. Bishop Methodios of Velika administered the Diocese of America and Canada, with cathedrals in Toronto, Ontario, and Crown Point, Indiana. Bishop Pimen of Poljana administered the Diocese of Europe with headquarters in Dortmund, Germany. Metropolitan Petar oversaw the parishes and monasteries in New Zealand and Australia. Altogether there were about 500 active priests in the Macedonian Orthodox Church in an equal number of parishes. Monasticism has experienced a renewal in the Macedonian church recently; today there are some 20 monasteries inhabited by more than 100 monastics. About two thirds of the FYROM population is Orthodox.
Location: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, North America, Australia
Head: Archbishop Stefan (born 1955, elected 1999)
Title: Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia
Residence: Skopje, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia