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Catholics in Macedonia: a small, united and ecumenical community” with hands extended to the migrants.

Monsignor Kiro Stoyanov, bishop of Skopje, is the first Macedonian pastor appointed after a century to guide Catholics of Latin and Byzantine rites. The diocese is tied to the Saints Cyril and Methodius and to Mother Teresa, who was born there. The Community – committed in the dialogue with Orthodox and Muslims – provides daily assistance to the refugees arriving from Middle Eastern countries through the local Caritas.

Kiro Stoyanov

The small yet active Catholic community of Macedonia bears the legacy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius and of Mother Teresa, born and raised in Skopje. “Ours is an ecumenical and interreligious environment, where dialogue is part of daily life”, said Monsignor Kiro Stoyanov, bishop of Skopje, apostolic exarch for Catholics of Byzantine rite in Macedonia.

After almost a century… “It’s a place where Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims live side by side. We are engaged in the promotion of dialogue and peace together with the leaders of other religious communities”, said Mons. Kiro Stoyanov, the first Macedonian shepherd in 104 years, describing the Catholic community of Macedonia. In the young Balkan Country, independent from former Yugoslavia since 1991, the faithful of the Catholic Church are the 1% of the overall population of just over 2 million inhabitants. This amounts to approximately 20 thousand Catholics – 15 thousand of the Byzantine rite and 5 thousand of the Latin rite. However, despite the low numbers their activity is remarkable: the community is very united and dynamic. The engine of pastoral activity is the new generation of local young priests, after a difficult period for the national Church.

“Our fathers never abandoned their faith – said Mons. Stoyanov –. I believe that these vocations are the result of their sacrifices and prayers.”

Two Holy Doors were opened for the Jubilee: a sign of closeness to Pope Francis and of the will to seize the opportunity of the Year of Mercy.

The weight of history. Dialogue, coupled by faithful from various religious traditions, is part and parcel of everyday life in Macedonia. Msgr. Stoyanov serves both as the bishop of Latin rite of the diocese of Skopje and as apostolic exarch for the faithful of Byzantine rite. The community of Catholics of Byzantine rite, centred in the city of Strumiza, dates back to the struggle against the Hellenization of the Orthodox Church on the part of the Macedonian population, known as the union of Kukush. The diocese of Skopje instead includes the faithful of Byzantine rite. It was erected archdiocese until 1924, when the title was passed to Belgrade. From 1960 to 2000 the apostolic administration was united with Prizren.

Necessary, positive dialogue. “As it is an Orthodox majority Country – pointed out Msgr Stoyanov –, most of the faithful families are mixed.” In his opinion,

“the elements that unite us with the Orthodox are more than those that divide us.”

For the shepherd of Skopje’s community “strengthening the relations with Orthodox, Muslims, Jews and Evangelicals, in a climate of brotherly dialogue, is essential for the good of society.” Such efforts are expressed in concrete action, for example, in the centre for disabled persons near Ohrid and in the traditional ecumenical summer camp for young people. Moreover, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has featured three different prayer gatherings: in the Catholic cathedral, in the Orthodox church and in the Evangelical church.

Political instability. Cooperation and good relations also characterize the relations of the Catholic Church with public authorities in Macedonia. Each Christmas and Easter a delegation of Catholics is received by the President of the Republic who also attends solemn Masses in Skopje’s Cathedral. “The ongoing political crisis is perceived throughout society”, Msgr. Stoyanov said. After several scandals the government was forced to resign. It was replaced by an interim executive government until the early elections of April 24. “Some young people go abroad – added the bishop of Skopje – but many remain and find jobs thanks to the investments made in recent years.” Moreover, “the standard of living is quite low”, the bishop added.

For Mons. Stoyanov EU membership “would improve people’s living standards.” In fact, in Skopje, European adhesion is seen as “a source of hope in a better future.”

Msgr. Stoyanov is convinced that Macedonia could give a special contribution to the EU in terms of its experience in the field of dialogue and peaceful coexistence, along with the legacy of the brothers Cyril and Methodius, but also the figure of Mother Teresa, born and raised right here, where her native home has been converted into a museum.

Helping the migrants. The Catholic Church in Macedonia has been actively engaged in providing assistance to the refugees through Caritas centres since last summer, when migrant inflows started following the Balkan route. “Our community knows what it means to be driven from your homes”, said the apostolic exarch. After the Balkan wars of 1918 the Catholics of Byzantine rite were cut out from the new borders of Macedonia and were driven from their lands. He added: “Every day a Catholic priest, accompanied by local young volunteers, assists the refugees on the borders, offering them also spiritual support.”

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