Islamic leader's statement causes furore in Macedonia

10/03/2014

Analysts and activists caution religious leaders to be careful about their statements on social networks and elsewhere.

By Miki Trajkovski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 10/03/14

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IVZ head Sulejman Rexhepi’s post about the Prilep mosque is being criticised. [Facebook/Sulejman Rexhipi]

Officials and civil society condemned a Facebook posting by the Islamic Community (IVZ) leader in Macedonia that celebrated the deaths of those who set fire to a Prilep mosque in 2001 and predicted a similar fate for Prilep Mayor Marjan Risteski.

IVZ head Sulejman Rexhepi posted on his Facebook wall a photo of Carsi mosque in Prilep, noting that God is punishing with death those who burned it down during the 2001 conflict in Macedonia.

A group of Prilep inhabitants burned the mosque down in retaliation for the killing of Macedonian security forces by the National Liberation Army.

"Respected Muslim brothers, this is the Carsi mosque in Prilep that was burned down in 2001 by a group of 30 people and all of them were sentenced to death by Allah. ... The last one left is Marjan Risteski who will face Allah's big punishment," Rexhepi said in the Facebook post.

Risteski, who has never been accused of or admitted to burning any structure, called the statement scandalous, and said Rexhepi is trying to portray himself as a radical in the pre-election period.

Risteski also said he does not profess the Islamic faith, but asks God to give Rexhepi strength to remain consistent with the principles of Islam, which call for tolerance and understanding, instead of saying and doing things unbecoming of a religious leader.

"In the spirit of Christianity, I have forgiven him for the unfortunate and not-well-thought-out statement. I appeal to all to refrain from any reactions, because the goal of such statements is to create problems and counter-reactions. Instead of distasteful and low provocations, let us unite and look further than those who want to create problems," Risteski said.

IVZ will not and cannot benefit from anyone's death, nor has Rexhepi stated anything contrary to the Quran, said Abaz Islami, spokesperson for the IVZ.

"He and all IVZ employees continually advise the believers and the entire public to be careful when it comes to religious shrines, because if the laws tolerate those who destroy the religious shrines, the punishment will come from God," Islami told SETimes.

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The mosque was burned in 2001. [AFP]

Rexhepi is addressing those who are alive so they can find courage to breathe life into the Carsi mosque, he added.

Others, however, condemned Rexhepi's statement and called on all religious leaders to be mindful when issuing statements on social networks and elsewhere.

"Such statements only damage the restoration of the Carsi mosque, a monument of cultural heritage of first degree, for which there is an agreement among all government and non-governmental institutions and international backing by the European Commission and Turkey," Ramadan Ramadani, programme director at the Institute for Free Thinking NISMA in Skopje, told SETimes.

Ramadani said similar efforts led to restoring the Lesok monastery near Tetovo. The National Liberation Army destroyed the monastery in 2001.

Citizens and especially religious leaders should make an extra effort to foster religious and ethnic tolerance, said Valentina Bozinovska, president of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities.

"I condone all statements to the contrary regardless of where they come from, because not only do they damage relations domestically, but create a bad image of Macedonia abroad. I appeal to all citizens to be generators to preserve the religious and ethnic co-existence," Bozinovska told SETimes.

Bozinovska said religious leaders should meet more frequently because problems have always been resolved through dialogue.

"The same is true in this situation. Having dialogue and calm demeanour have always turned things right. For every issue there is a precise solution, but such [inflammatory] statements are not needed in Macedonia," Bozinovska said.

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IVZ said it agreed to a meeting with Macedonia's other religious leaders.

All institutions should contribute to improving inter-religious communication, said Rubin Zemon, expert on minority issues at the EvroBalkan Institute in Skopje.

"It is time for the state institutions to react to hate speech, especially on social networks, because nobody has been punished for it so far," Zemon told SETimes.

What should Macedonia do to encourage tolerance among religious leaders? Share your opinion in the comments space.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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