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The complex question of the Orthodox Church of Macedonia

Since 1967, when the Macedonian Orthodox Church unilaterally proclaimed her independence from the Church of Belgrade, the former has been living in a state of division and isolation. The causes underlining this thorny situation are many – political, cultural and historical. And the ways out appear to be complex. Toni Nikolov, chief editor of the Bulgarian magazine “Christianity and Culture”, hereby provides an explanation for the present situation

Over the past 50 years the Macedonian Orthodox Church has been living in a state of division and isolation. It’s a painful situation with no easy solutions. Political factors have interfered with ecclesial issues and there are no clear rules about the ways in which an Orthodox Church can declare her independence. In a letter, the Synod of the Macedonian Church asked for the help of the Synod of the Orthodox Bulgarian Church in the recognition of her autocephaly.

The case. Unlike the Catholic Church, with a unique structure and archdioceses that refer to Rome, there are presently 14 autocephalous, hence, independent, local Orthodox Churches. While it’s not the norm, local churches usually correspond to their Countries.The Macedonian question is a result of the fact that in the course of history there were several denominations, until the birth of the Macedonian State in 1991”, said the chief editor of the Bulgarian magazine “Christianity and culture”, Toni Nikolov, expert in ecclesial issues and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sofia. “The archdiocese of Ohrid (that includes the territory of present Macedonia) was established in 971 and remained such until 1767 when by will of the Sultan it passed under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.” For a certain period of time, the Macedonians referred to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, but in 1920, with the creation of the kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians, the same territory passed under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The struggle between Belgrade and Skopje. “The problem broke out in 1967 when Macedonian Metropolites decided to unilaterally declare their independence from Belgrade”, Professor Nikolov pointed out. “As a result, the Serbian Orthodox Church defined them ‘schismatic’ and no other Orthodox Church has recognized them.” This situation has been ongoing until today: the Macedonian Church, since she is not in canonical unity, nor in spiritual and Eucharistic communion with other Churches, cannot proclaim her saints and cannot prepare the sacred Chrism.In theory the Macedonian Church should seek to restore communion with the Serbian Church first, as she broke away from it – Nikolov said – but the relations between the two Churches are very tense, and over the past years the dialogue was interrupted.” In the course of the years Belgrade sought to send its own metropolitan archbishops, bishops and priests to Skopje, but the Macedonian authorities that support the national Church expelled them from monasteries and churches, and arrested archbishop Jovan Vraniskovski. Today the Serbian Church in Macedonia counts very few faithful, as the majority attend the services of the Macedonian Church.

The request to the Bulgarian Church. Amidst this complex scenario the Macedonian Orthodox Church asked the Bulgarian Church to restore Eucharistic communion and proclaim itself its “Mother-Church.” “The Mother-Church could grant independence – Nikolov said – and the request was seen as a challenge by Bulgarian metropolitans.” Sofia replied that it “will take the destiny of her Macedonian brothers to heart and will initiate a set of consultations with other Orthodox Churches to clarify the canonical status of the Macedonian Church.” But it failed to recognize their autonomy.

The thorny question of autocephaly. “In the Orthodox world the question of autocephaly – the proclamation of independence of a Church – is not clear”, said Bulgarian Patriarch Neofit, referring to the fact that there are no specific canons or rules. “In theory, autocephaly should be granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but in the course of history it has also been granted by the Russian Patriarchate”, added the chief editor of the magazine “Christianity and culture.” It’s the case of the Orthodox Church of Poland and of the Czech and Slovakian Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox world there are Churches that are recognized only by some local Churches, such as the Orthodox Church of America that was granted autonomy by Moscow – and is not recognized by Constantinople – or the Estonian Orthodox Church, accepted by Constantinople but not recognized by Moscow.

Is there a way out? “It will take years of consultations and in-depth negotiations before a solution is found – Nikolov remarked -. One of the two major Patriarchates, either Constantinople or Moscow, should recognize the autonomy of the Macedonian Church. In that case, the problem would be partly resolved.” But it’s a path strewn with obstacles. The Greeks have a problem with the term “Macedonian Church”, while the Serbs will never agree. Furthermore, the Serbian Church is a very important ally for Moscow’s Patriarchate. Ultimately, Nikolov said, there is another weighty issue: Orthodox Churches are afraid of creating precedents since there are various non-canonical Churches – Ukraine, with six Orthodox Churches, is one such example – that will want to follow in the wake of the Macedonian Church.” However, unlike Ukraine, Macedonians have been experiencing this situation for the past fifty years, and they will never accept Belgrade’s jurisdiction, even if it means more years of isolation.

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