By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
SKOPJE/BELGRADE/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Macedonian security forces have detained 17 monks, nuns and other believers on tax evasion charges as part of a fresh crackdown on the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, representatives and investigators told BosNewsLife Tuesday, May 22.
They were captured after police entered several monasteries and homes of church members, who fall under the responsibility of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s “Ohrid Archbishopric” in Macedonia, said Centar 9, or ‘Center 9’ in English, a major Balkan religious rights watchdog.
“Prosecution of monks, nuns and believers of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia continues,” Center 9 General Secretary Drasko Djenovic told BosNewsLife. “[It is] the situation in that ex-Yugoslav state,” he said.
The raid reportedly began early Monday, May 21, when police in the eastern Macedonian town of Stip “was looking to arrest Bishop Marko of Bregalnica” area but he was not present as he attended the spring session of the Serbian Orthodox Church Synod in Belgrade, Serbia, according to investigators. However a nun, identified as Pelagija, was said to have been detained in that raid.
Elsewhere, in Macedonia’s capital Skopje, police entered a monastery of the Assumption of the Holy Mother of God looking for Bishop David of the ancient town of Stobi, Center 9 added.
He was not found, but Prioress Kirina was taken into custody, BosNewsLife learned. While she was trying to report of what was going on, her mobile phone was allegedly taken away. “Police performed a search and arrest while video recording all,” Center 9 claimed.
In a separate statement attributed to Bishop David and obtained by BosNewsLife, the church leader explained that “According to our understanding, 17 nuns and monks are arrested today [Monday].”
“Considering that the Macedonian police was trying to arrest me this morning, I expect to be arrested as soon as I cross the border line and enter Macedonia,“ he stressed, while returning from the synod meeting in Belgrade.
“Bishop Marko stayed at the synod meeting, since someone needs to inform the public of the events in Macedonia, as our Archbishop Jovan is already in prison,” Bishop David added. “Such persecution and repression, in a desire to annihilate the whole Church, is not remembered in a modern and democratic Europe.“
Also, in the country’s southwestern city of Bitola, police entered the monastery of St. John Chrysostom during the liturgy, in an attempt to “arrest the Mother superior Olimpijada” Center 9 told BosNewsLife.
“When Center 9 called a mobile phone of Mother Olimpijada, another nun responded confirming that Mother Olimpijada is in a ‘safe place and not arrested’. However, one nun was taken to police custody.” Her name was not immediately released.
In a statement, the nun answering the phone, was quoted as saying: “This morning, during the service, police entered the monastery with arrest warrants and did a thorough search. No one is injured, but everything is upside down.”
In the southern Macedonian city of Prilep police entered a monastery of the Assumption of the Holy Mother and arrested [monk] Mojsej, Center 9 reported.
Police reportedly said the raids were part of an investigation into “tax evasion fraud”. But rights investigators have linked these and other raids to the government’s refusal to register the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia.
Only the Macedonian Orthodox Church has been recognized as the Balkan nation’s main religion.
An Interior Ministry blacklist issued in recent years reportedly lists over 20 Serbian Orthodox bishops banned from entering Macedonia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church Synod in Belgrade earlier condemned as “political and not judicial” the sentence of two and half years to Archbishop Jovan, who is behind bars in Macedonia’s Idrizovo prison.
Several other court cases are pending against Jovan and at least 15 other persons, trial observers said. Family members of Archbishop Jovan were among those detained in the latest raids, in addition to the nuns and monks, Center 9 said, adding that they were all expected to be brought before an investigative judge.
Macedonian police was to give more details later Tuesday, May 22.
It was not immediately clear how the European Union would react to the latest developments. Macedonia is seeking membership of the EU and the NATO military alliance, efforts so far blocked by Greece amid a dispute over the country’s name.
The tensions over religious and national identities in the region are a left-over of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, according to Western obervers and rights activists.