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The Orthodox Church of Macedonia

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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.

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Tags: Church history Macedonia Macedonian Orthodox Church