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Answering the Macedonian Question

The Orthodox Church nurtures the spiritual and national identity of a young republic

Clinging to the eastern bank of Lake Ohrid, tucked away in the Balkan Mountains, the sleepy town of Ohrid hardly appears to be the object of so much strife.

But in the last 100 years, three wars, scores of border clashes, ecclesial schisms and a nervous peace have yet to settle the twin questions symbolized by this seemingly remote town of some 40,000 people: What is Macedonia and who are the Macedonians?

Except for a brief 34-year period 1,000 years ago, when Ohrid served as the political and spiritual center of an independent kingdom, what today is known as Macedonia has always been subjugated by its neighbors – Bulgarian, Greek, Serb or Turkish – and its people assimilated. The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, however, reignited the smoldering flames of Macedonian national and spiritual identity.

“The Archbishopric of Ohrid, and later the memory of it,” stated Archbishop Dositei, who was named the first head of the restored Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid and Macedonia in 1958, “was the only source of Macedonian national awareness.”

Though its allegiances would shift with the tides of rising and falling regional empires, the Church of Ohrid, established as an autocephalous, or independent, church in the late 10th century, remained an unmoving bulwark for the area’s Orthodox Christians and a center for the evolution and development of southern Slavic culture and spirituality.

Slavic tribes began settling in the area in the seventh century and came into increasing contact with Byzantium and its distinct church and culture. In the ninth century, Emperor Michael III summoned two brothers from eastern Macedonia, Cyril and Methodius, to evangelize the Slavs in their native tongue, which led the two to devise the Glagolitic script.

Their disciples, Clement and Naum, would expand their linguistic, cultural and educational work in monasteries they established in Ohrid. All four have become important saints, particularly in the Christian East.

Naum established the first Slavic university, the Ohrid Literary School, while Clement, who became the first Slav bishop with his seat in Ohrid, reformed Cyril’s alphabet and renamed it Cyrillic in honor of his teacher. This alphabet is the precursor of the modern alphabet Macedonians share with Belarussians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, Russians, Serbs and Ukrainians.

The Church of Ohrid’s schools and monasteries played a defining role in the development of southern Slavic culture, education and ecclesiastical organization.

Its cultural importance survived the rise and fall of Bulgarian and Serbian kingdoms in the 13th and 14th centuries, Greek ecclesial tutelage and the advance of the Ottoman Turks into southern Europe. Although the Ottomans abolished the Church of Ohrid in 1767 and placed its eparchies under the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, the educational and cultural institutions that had been built up by the Church of Ohrid continued to thrive.

These institutions played a central role in the 19th century in propagating a Macedonian national identity separate from the histories and cultures of Ohrid’s powerful neighbors.

Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia all freed themselves from Ottoman rule in the 19th century, but Macedonia’s national moment had to wait. Lacking its own medieval state and native intelligentsia, Macedonia’s independent historical development remained a restive subject of regional suzerains.

This powerlessness led Macedonians to direct their national energies toward the independence of the church and education. A renaissance of Macedonian literature in the 19th century gave birth to the idea of an independent country, but such notions of “Macedonia for the Macedonians” – the political slogan of the country’s first nationalists – were strongly resisted by Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia – all of whom had designs for historical Macedonia.

With European and Turkish diplomats debating the “Macedonian Question,” competing claims on the land erupted into violence during the three Balkan Wars of 1912-13, which resulted in the partition of Macedonia. Greece staked out eastern Macedonia and began a ruthless policy of ethnic and cultural cleansing in the area, while the Bulgarians and the Serbs carved up the rest of the land and pursued similar policies of ethnic assimilation.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which would later become the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church absorbed what had been the territories of the Church of Ohrid.

Macedonia’s liberation by the Allies near the end of World War II brought new hope for the creation of an independent church and nation. In 1945, a church congress in the regional capital of Skopje voted for the restoration of the Archdiocese of Ohrid as the national Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Although Macedonia became a republic within the newly created Yugoslav federation, which also included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, the Communist government of Josip Broz Tito encouraged Macedonian nationalists and the independence of the Church of Ohrid – if only to irritate Greek ambitions in the area.

The Archdiocese of Ohrid was restored in 1958. Nine years later on the 200th anniversary of its dissolution and despite opposition from the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Macedonian Orthodox Church proclaimed itself autocephalous.

“We are now a free church and a free people,” exclaimed Father Eftim Betinski, a parish priest from St. George Church. “Now that we have independence, people feel free to visit churches, participate in public ceremonies and make old traditions a part of their lives again.”

When Macedonia was a part of Yugoslavia, people were free to worship, but the Communist government discouraged public religious activities.

“We have an annual tradition where the bishop throws a cross into the lake on 19 January, symbolizing the baptism of Christ. Men dive into the frigid water to retrieve the cross and the one who finds it keeps it for 40 days and receives small donations from people,” Father Betinski said. “The practice used to be forbidden, but now it is allowed.”

The Macedonian Orthodox Church – now under the leadership of Stefan, Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia – is clearly growing.

“We have a minor seminary in Drajive and a major one in Skopje, which currently has some 70 students,” Father Betinski said. “Already we have over 100 young monks, compared to only half a dozen 14 years ago.”

The Macedonian Orthodox Church has over 300 priests and monks and over 1,000 active churches. In a country about the size of Vermont with a total population of just over two million – two-thirds of whom are Orthodox – churches everywhere are being restored and new ones built to meet the needs of growing congregations.

“Everything is paid for by donations from the faithful, although the new church in Ohrid, St. Panteleimon, was built with a grant from the state,” the priest said. “This was an exception because the church is also a symbol for our nation.”

Echoing the sentiments of Macedonia’s bishops, Father Betinski was adamant about the Church of Ohrid’s independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church.

“We want to be independent of other national churches,” said Father Betinski. “The Serbian Orthodox Church has yet to acknowledge our autonomy, leaving our church isolated. This is not too much of a problem for us, but it means we cannot celebrate the liturgy with our Orthodox neighbors.”

Macedonian church leaders have expressed a desire to work with other Orthodox churches to regularize the church’s canonical status, but they insist their church must be freed from the politics of subjugation.

Just as the independence of the Church of Ohrid has given rise to new political and religious considerations, the independence of the nation has brought new challenges to the people of Macedonia. A difficult economy, a precipitous rise in crime and an uncertain political order have many nostalgic for the relative peace and prosperity of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which unraveled after the strongman’s death.

Macedonia and other former Yugoslav republics asserted their independence after the Yugoslav federation, burdened by foreign debt and ethnic strife, collapsed.

On 8 September 1991, 95 percent of Macedonians voted for the creation of an independent state. The country’s path to independence escaped the horrible violence that racked the other former Yugoslav republics, but it was not without its stumbling blocks.

Greece held up international recognition of the new republic, protesting against the republic’s use of the name Macedonia and the use of an ancient emblem on its flag.

Fearful of the new country’s historical claims to eastern Macedonia, now northern Greece, the Greeks also imposed unilateral economic sanctions. The dispute was eventually resolved and the sanctions lifted after the Macedonians agreed to alter their flag and the United Nations recognized the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.) – although most countries recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

Macedonia is the poorest of the Balkan states. It continues to struggle to overcome the impact of the international sanctions slapped on Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, Greek sanctions and the evaporation of the de facto free trade zone and government spending it enjoyed when it was part of the Yugoslav federation. Tensions with the country’s Albanian minority, some 25 percent of the population, spilled into violence in the late 1990’s, further damaging the country’s weak economy.

Many Macedonians are also concerned over the impact of an unfettered marketplace on the moral and social fabric of their country. In the last decade, Macedonia has become a major transshipment hub for illegal drugs.

“When we were part of Yugoslavia, the law was very strong,” said Christopher, 40, who struggles to make a living leading tourists on boat rides on Lake Ohrid. “Criminals faced imprisonment and there was no corruption, unlike today. Salaries have dropped by more than 10 percent and unemployment is almost 40 percent. People are hungry and all they can do is feed their spirits.”

A guide at St. Clement Church agreed. “Before 1991, people were encouraged to be more modest, both in life and religion,” said Jana, 50, who is writing a book on Ohrid’s churches. “Ironically, we experienced the real essence of Christianity during Tito’s time when we were under the influence and direction of our Communist dictator.”

Like much of Eastern Europe, the country is in a period of post-Communist self-discovery. Freedom has brought unbridled capitalism and materialism, but it has also led many to rediscover their traditional Christian faith.

Several thousand of such people could be seen filling Ohrid’s many churches, lighting candles and celebrating midnight liturgies on Holy Saturday – a highly symbolic time for the restored church and the young republic.

Half an hour before midnight, the faithful packed the town’s narrow, twisting streets leading up a hill to the new St. Panteleimon Church.

Built next to the site of a ninth-century monastery founded by St. Clement, the new church follows the traditional Macedonian Byzantine architectural style. Like all churches in the region, it is small, allowing only a couple hundred worshipers to cram inside the building. Several thousand more had to stand outside, trying in vain to light their candles as a cold wind blew across the lake.

The crowd seemed happy and excited, especially at the stroke of midnight when the bells rang out and the congregants shouted “Christos voskrese” (Christ is risen) and cracked open their Easter eggs, dyed a brilliant red to symbolize the blood of Christ.

In high spirits, the smartly dressed crowd headed back to the center of town where many of the youth continued their Easter celebrations to pounding dance music in Ohrid’s bars and nightclubs. On this night in a new Macedonia, reverence and revelry never seemed so compatible.

With the Macedonian Orthodox Church growing in popularity, it will undoubtedly play a large role in helping the young country overcome challenges as profound and difficult as the region’s troubled history.

Sean Sprague, a photojournalist living in Wales, travels the globe for ONE.

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