Religious leaders and local government work to calm tensions between Muslim and Christian groups.
By Klaudija Lutovska for Southeast European Time in Skopje -- 04/09/13
Police cordoned off Muslim protesters from the Macedonian Orthodox Church procession in Oktisi. [Miki Trajkovski/SETimes]
Representatives of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Community and Struga municipality met Saturday (August 31st) to resolve a tense dispute over the controversial construction of a church in the village of Oktisi.
A group of Oktisi Muslims -- witness estimates ranged from 50 people to several hundred -- blocked a procession of Christians who were to bless and begin work at the St. Nikola Orthodox Church last week. One woman was injured, but police prevented a larger confrontation.
Oktisi is a village of approximately 4,500 people -- half of them are temporarily employed abroad -- and more than 80 percent are Muslim.
"We have not reached a specific agreement, but expect to meet again next week," Bishop Metropolitan Timotej said.
Struga Mayor Zijadin Sela proposed temporarily halting construction as an interim measure.
"The interim measure will extend the September 30th deadline for building the church. It will provide room to calm passions, and the religious communities to sit down and reach an agreement. The interim measure is the best solution from a security standpoint," Sela said.
But Father Zoran Popovski of the Vevchani eparchy said that civil law must be respected or thousands of Christians will defend their rights in the next procession to lay the church's foundation.
"This is our property and we want to renew the small church there that has long been left to stand in ruins. We had secured all the required licenses and collected donations," Popovski told SETimes.
Popovski said the eparchy has documents showing it owns a parcel of 1,040 square metres in Oktisi, and officials decided to use 400 square metres of the land for the church.
"When we arrived, they told us they do not want to have a church near them. Until the imam called the faithful to protest, there was no indication anybody would dispute or prevent the church's construction," Popovski said.
Demonstrators were urged to protest during a prayer at the Oktisi mosque, with the call from the minaret for "all citizens of the village Oktisi our Muslim brothers to come to a peaceful protest against the construction of the church."
Kanye Canoski, 50, of Muslim from Oktisi, said the protest was driven by a property dispute.
"[The Macedonian Orthodox Church] wants to build a church in the middle of the village, which we used as a place for socialising, games and shared celebrations. The property was social. And in 1974 on that place was built a church that wasn't preserved. Fifty locals gathered in the name of justice so could be built a square and park for children and pensioners at this place. After all, it seems that building the church has a political background."
But Timotej said he believed the protesters are being influenced by Islamic extremists.
"I personally believe some third party is involved in this. The people here are manipulated by certain radical structures that are not characteristic of Islam in Macedonia," Timotej said.
Timotej said church authorities have taken on the responsibility to meet again and solve the problem through political dialogue in a democratic and dignified way.
Sasho Klekovski, former director of the Macedonian Centre for International Co-operation, said the situation is unique, based on what he called local rivalries.
"St. Gjorgjija monastery in Mala Recica was renewed by the local Muslims after being burned down in 2001. I hope Oktisi will find strength to overcome the old [local] rivalries, he said.
What role should the government play in resolving the dispute between Christian and Muslim groups? Add your thoughts in the comment section below.