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The Orthodox Church of Macedonia

Nearly a century ago, the renascent peoples of the Balkan Peninsula — long buried under the oppressive weight of the Ottoman Turks — disputed a landlocked piece of territory largely occupied by illiterate peasants. In what proved to foreshadow the ethnic clashes of the late 20th century, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 pitted Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia in relentless battle for rights to land and people with mixed pedigree.

Today vestiges of that acreage — which is legally known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM — remains an object of regional contention.

Politicians in neighboring Greece contest the use of the name Macedonia — a Greek province also bears the name Macedonia.

Albanians account for more than a quarter of the republic’s two million people. As with their kin in the neighboring Serbian province of Kosovo, which will assert its independence imminently, Macedonia’s Albanians agitate for autonomy and sovereignty.

Neighboring Bulgaria refuses to recognize Macedonians, most of whom are Slavs, as a distinct ethnic group. The Bulgarians classify Macedonians as Bulgarian Slavs who speak a Bulgarian dialect, thus undermining the Republic of Macedonia’s legitimacy and raison d’être.

Except for a brief period some 1,000 years ago, the territory now commonly known as Macedonia has always been subjected to land-grabbing by Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs and Turks.

In 1991, the disintegration of Yugoslavia — an “experiment” of the Romantic era that united Southern Slavs regardless of culture, history and religion — reignited Macedonian cultural and political aspirations. The reawakening of the “Macedonian Question,” which once haunted Europe’s crowned heads and ministers, now fuels new fears as the political history of the Balkans — the “powder keg of Europe” — threatens to repeat itself.

The preeminent faith community of the country, the Orthodox Church of Macedonia, is also engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition. The various national Orthodox churches of the Balkans — Bulgarian, Greek, Montenegrin, Romanian and Serbian — historically have played leading roles in the development of distinct nations, serving as cultural repositories and bastions of faith especially in times of peril. Macedonia’s Orthodox Church has taken that lead, but not without incurring isolation and scorn.

Origins. Slavic tribes began settling in the Balkan interior in the sixth century, driving out existing populations or suppressing those who remained. These tribes, which had formed loose federations, broached the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium. They reached Byzantium’s great capital of Constantinople, storming its walls repeatedly. Byzantium’s emperors alternated between military might and bribery to keep at bay the Slav princes.

One prince, Rastislav of Greater Moravia, requested Byzantine missionaries to preach among his people, provided they used the Slavic vernacular. He requested this to counter the evangelical efforts promoted by his Germanic enemies, who used Latin.

In 862, the Byzantine emperor sent Rastislav two brothers, Cyril and Methodius. They devised the Glagolitic script for the Slavonic vernacular; translated into Slavonic Scripture and the liturgies of the church; and transcribed the first Slavic code of civil law. Modern scholarship suggests the brothers translated the liturgies of the Roman, not Byzantine, Church.

The work of the “Apostles to the Slavs” generated hostility among the Latin clergy, who eventually deposed Rastislav, drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia and, in 886, banished their followers. Two such disciples, Clement and Naum, would further the linguistic, cultural and educational work of Cyril and Methodius in the Balkan lands of the Bulgarian and Southern Slavs.

Church of Ohrid. Clement and Naum eventually settled in Ohrid (now in modern Macedonia), a city in the realm of Boris I, a Bulgarian tsar who had embraced Christianity in its Byzantine form in 864. Boris commissioned Clement and Naum to develop his church that, while autonomous, would remain dependent on the Church of Constantinople.

Clement founded the Ohrid Literary School and Naum the Pliska Literary School, both of which translated theological texts into Slavonic and functioned as the cultural, linguistic and theological centers of the evolving Bulgarian Church. Later ordained to the episcopacy, Clement trained thousands of Slavonic-speaking priests, who replaced the Greek-speaking clerics expelled by Boris in 893.

Clement also reformed St. Cyril’s alphabet and renamed it Cyrillic in honor of his teacher. This is the precursor of the modern alphabet Macedonians share with Belarussians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, Russians, Rusyns, Serbs and Ukrainians.

The deeds of Clement and Naum played a crucial role in aligning the Bulgarian and Southern Slavs with the world of Byzantium — with whom they shared liturgical rites and similar spiritual and theological vocabularies, yet remained independent of it.

In 919, after the Bulgarian Slavs militarily defeated their Byzantine rivals, a national council declared the Bulgarian Church autocephalous (independent) and patriarchal. In 927, the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople recognized both the complete independence of the Bulgarian Church and its patriarchal status.

Ohrid played a seminal role in these developments, particularly after the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, defeated the forces of the Bulgarian tsar in 1018. Basil abolished the Bulgarian Patriarchate, which had moved to Ohrid decades earlier, but established the Church of Ohrid as an autonomous archiepiscopal church subordinate to the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. The emperor also defined the church’s eparchies, properties and privileges.

Basil’s Church of Ohrid survived the Great Schism, which divided the Catholic West from the Orthodox East after 1054; the rise and fall of Bulgarian and Serbian kingdoms in the 13th and 14th centuries; Greek ecclesial dominance; the arrival of the Ottoman Turks and of Islam into the Balkans; and the demise of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. And though the Ottomans abolished the Church of Ohrid in 1767, placing its eparchies under the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople, the church’s modest cultural and monastic institutions thrived.

Reawakening. In the 19th century, what remained of the Church of Ohrid played a central role in propagating a Macedonian national identity separate from the identities of its Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian neighbors, who had already freed themselves from Ottoman rule.

The Macedonian backwater’s tiny elite, educated by the Orthodox clergy, developed a renaissance of Macedonian culture and literature that nurtured national aspirations.But a “Macedonia for the Macedonians” — the political slogan of the country’s first nationalists — was resisted by Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. Bulgaria and Serbia had also claimed Ohrid and Clement and Naum as their patrimony. Greece feared Slav claims for eastern Macedonia, a territory that while ethnically mixed constituted an important part of ancient Greece.

These competing claims erupted in the three Balkan Wars of 1912-13, which resulted in the partition of Macedonia. Greece took eastern Macedonia and instituted a policy of forced assimilation. The Bulgarians and the Serbs carved up the remnants and pursued similar policies.

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 (later renamed Yugoslavia), the Serbian Orthodox Church absorbed what had once been the territories of the Church of Ohrid.

Macedonia’s liberation by the Allies near the end of World War II raised hopes 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 Archiepiscopal Church of Ohrid. And though Macedonia would become a Socialist republic within the newly created Yugoslav federation (which also included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia), the government of Josip Broz Tito encouraged Macedonian nationalists, who advocated the independence of the Church of Ohrid.

Developments. “The Archbishopric of Ohrid, and later the memory of it, was the only source of Macedonian national awareness,” said Archbishop Dositei, who in 1958 was elected the first head of a restored Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid by a national council made up of clergy and laity. In addition, three bishops were elected to shepherd new Macedonian eparchies, which remained in full communion with a reluctant Serbian Orthodox patriarchate.

Nine years later, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Ottoman dissolution of the Church of Ohrid, Macedonia’s Orthodox bishops declared their church an autocephalous national church. This unilateral decision of the Macedonian Orthodox bishops drew opposition from the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which declared them in schism and promptly severed canonical and liturgical ties. (The faithful were not, however, subject to excommunication.)

Ongoing efforts to restore full communion between the episcopacy of both churches have failed; critics on both sides fear government manipulation.

Archbishop Stefan of Ohrid and Macedonia works closely with the Macedonian state in developing and nurturing a distinct Macedonian Slav identity, in a nation that remains Europe’s poorest. An estimated 1.5 million people, about two-thirds of the country’s population, identify themselves as Macedonian Orthodox Christians.

Politically beleaguered, economically isolated and diplomatically scorned, Macedonia and its Orthodox Church face uphill challenges as they work to improve the lot of their people and gain international respect.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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