By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BUDAPEST/BELGRADE/SKOPJE (BosNewsLife)– Authorities in Macedonia released all 19 Serbian Orthodox monks, nuns and other believers who were detained on tax evasion charges, but confiscated their passports to prevent them from leaving the country, representatives confirmed to BosNewsLife Friday, May 25.
Most Christians were taken into custody Monday, May 21 after police raided several monasteries and homes as part of a crackdown on the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, said Centar 9, or ‘Center 9’ in English, a Balkan religious rights watchdog.
Previous reports said 17 Christians were detained, but activists later adjusted that figure to 19. They were mainly detained Monday May 21, before being released the same day, while some were briefly held when entering the country this week, activists said.
“Basically they were freed but passports was taken from monks, nuns and Bishops Marko and David,” Center 9 General Secretary Drasko Djenovic told BosNewsLife, speaking from Belgrade, Serbia.
“There is also an an uncertain situation for about 40 priest, monks and nuns” who may face deportation as “non-Montenegrin citizens not get [permanent residence] permission,” he added.
Those who were briefly detained this week fall under the responsibility of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s “Ohrid Archbishopric” in Macedonia.
Police reportedly said the detentions were part of an investigation into “money laundering”, but church leaders and rights activists have linked raids to the government’s refusal to register the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia.
In comments obtained by BosNewsLife, Bishop David of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedinia claimed the “persecution” was well-timed and denied the church was involved in financial wrongdoing.
“This persecution started right in a moment when the bishops were outside of the country, at the Holy Synod meetings in Belgrade, and at a time when there is a general discomfort in Macedonia as the country was not accepted in the NATO organization…[Also] in Serbia there is no seated president and a government is in the making after the recent elections. They calculated no one will pay attention to such events in Macedonia while Serbia is busy with its internal issues,“ Bishop David said in a statement distributed by Center 9.
Church leaders are also concerned about the impact the police raids have on individual believers. “What is very worrying is the fact that, apart from personal computers, phones and finances, police sequestrated all parish register books in which we kept all the names of baptized and married people of our Church, and all empty forms – certificates for baptisms and weddings,” noted Bishop David.
“Police took away our archive, all Synodal minutes and other writings, all with a religious content only. We are afraid that they might destroy our register books. If they are persecuting us because of alleged money laundering, what it has to do with the register books, Synodal minutes and alike documents?,” he wondered.
He said some are afraid that the Macedonian authorities might start harassing people listed in the register books.
Authorities have only recognized the Macedonian Orthodox Church as Macedonia’s main religion.
Besides the latest detentions, the Serbian Orthodox Church Synod in Belgrade earlier condemned as “political and not judicial” the sentence of two and half years imprisonment 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, according to trial observers.
Officials have not commenyed on the latest developments.
However, the Interior Ministry reportedly issued a blacklist in recent years with over 20 Serbian Orthodox bishops banned from entering Macedonia.
Tensions over religious and national identities in Macedonia and other former Yugoslav states are seen by analysts as a heritage of the nationalist Balkan wars of the 1990s when Yugoslavia fell apart.
Accurate estimates about the ethnic and religious situation in Macedonia are unknown, since the last census, from October 2011, was cancelled, explained Center 9. It is estimated that among 2 million people, one third is of ethnic Albanian origin and of a Muslim background.