Religious differences continued to play a role in criminal and civil court cases. The government continued to deny recognition to minority religious groups and maintained its preferential treatment of the MOC-OA. Minority religious groups continued to have trouble obtaining restitution of former properties and permits for new construction.
In June a court sentenced six ethnic Albanian Muslims for the April 2012 murder of five ethnic Macedonians of the Orthodox faith near the village of Smiljkovci. The court gave six of the defendants life sentences on terrorism charges and acquitted the seventh. The court, in determining that the criminal offense was targeted at ethnic Macedonians, said it was planned to occur on Orthodox Easter and was intended to cause religious strife. Much of the key evidence was sealed and critics stated the charges were not substantiated. Ethnic Albanians in Skopje and other cities violently protested the verdict. They stated the judicial process was not transparent and the court had failed to provide sufficient evidence for the convictions.
The head of the self-declared Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, Jovan Vraniskovski, remained in prison for money laundering after a previous conviction for embezzlement. The Appellate Court in Skopje confirmed his three-year sentence for money laundering on July 17. The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights declared Vraniskovski a political prisoner, and members of his church stated his conviction was due to his religious beliefs. Representatives of the MOC-OA continued to say the difficulties facing Vraniskovski and his followers were strictly legal in nature and not related to religious freedom or the influence of the MOC-OA. In December a high-level visitor from the Russian Orthodox Church met with the prime minister, president, and high-level MOC-OA officials and urged them to release Vraniskovski in order to help settle the MOC-OA’s status within the international Orthodox community. The MOC-OA officially asked for clemency for Vraniskovski, who stated he was tortured in prison because of his religious affiliation and blamed the Macedonian authorities for his mistreatment.
Some leaders of the Bektashi community reported political influence in the religious registration process. The Skopje Basic Court II had no applications for registration pending from previous years and did not receive any new applications for registration during the year.
Smaller religious organizations not listed in the constitution, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Bektashi, and the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, said the government did not treat religious organizations not listed in the constitution as the equals of the five named organizations. Most religious groups stated the government favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique tax privileges, providing public properties free of charge, offering funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches, and providing exclusive invitations for its representatives to attend government functions. These other religious groups said the ruling coalition’s dominant ethnic Macedonian, and predominantly Orthodox, party had politicized religion for its own political gain by appealing to the religious beliefs and identity of the country’s majority and by using the MOC-OA as a tool to that end. The MOC-OA remained the sole registered Orthodox group, they said, due to the requirement that religious groups seeking recognition not have names or symbols similar to those of an already registered group. The MOC-OA denied any affiliation with the government and said the church did not involve itself in politics.
The self-declared Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid was awaiting a ruling from the ECHR regarding its application to register as a recognized religious organization, which courts had denied on the legal grounds that it could not substantiate the difference between its name and symbols and those of the MOC-OA. The ECHR had completed the judicial process but had yet to issue a verdict by year’s end. According to the MOC-OA, the Archbishopric has a following of approximately 100 members. The Archbishopric, recognized by the Serbian Orthodox Church as the sole legitimate autonomous Orthodox Church in Macedonia, stated that the government had subjected them to media harassment and undue monitoring due to their refusal to recognize the MOC-OA’s complete independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church (autocephaly). Archbishopric members also said their numbers are in the thousands, rather than the hundreds.
The Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo), an Islamic Sufi order, continued to await an ECHR ruling on its 2013 appeal asking the ECHR to overturn the Constitutional Court’s declaration that the Bektashi’s suit regarding the denial of its registration was “inadmissible for review.” Judicial officials stated the court had denied the Bektashi’s registration application because it was “incomplete.” The Bektashi, however, said the court had denied their application because of political interference from the ICM and the government.
The Bektashi reported that their inability to register as an official religious organization meant they could not make independent claims to Islamic religious property, including in the case of a long-running property dispute with the ICM in Tetovo. The ICM continued to occupy most of the Harabati Baba teqe compound, a Sufi religious complex in Tetovo, which was also claimed by the Bektashi, limiting the Bektashis’ ability to worship there. The Bektashi filed misdemeanor charges of trespassing against those occupying the Harabati Baba teqe compound, which were still pending at the end of the year.
Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated their missionaries were subject to harassment by police when distributing religious material. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of time required to obtain required documentation for religious visas but stated these visas had always been granted.
In April government officials attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the erection of a 56-meter cross in the Skopje municipality of Aerodrom, and in June government representatives attended the groundbreaking of an Orthodox Church in the same municipality. Various sources said the government had helped fund the construction of the cross and church and had also unfairly facilitated the permit process.
In January a commercial construction project resumed on the site where the former Burmali mosque had stood and to which the ICM had made a legal claim. The ICM said the government continued to refuse to return this property because the ruling coalition’s ethnic Macedonian party and the MOC-OA could not accept the prospect of a new mosque in Skopje’s city center. The government said the Law on Restitution only applied to properties nationalized after 1945, effectively denying restitution of some properties to ICM.
Local and national authorities continued to block the reconstruction of a mosque in Prilep, destroyed during the 2001 conflict, and the construction of a mosque in the village of Lazhec, near Bitola. The ICM said it continued to meet with government officials to try to resolve property issues, but was not able to regain the rightful use of several mosques that the government had agreed to return. The ICM said that in some cases the government continued to block the process of restitution by selling or starting new construction on disputed property, or by disputing the historical legal claim of the ICM to religious properties.
Small religious groups continued to report bureaucratic obstacles to construction or ownership of houses of worship, which they said were deliberately designed to make it difficult to construct new religious facilities and to enlarge existing structures. The municipal government continued to block the transfer of ownership of a meeting hall near Kriva Palanka to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community filed new lawsuits regarding the transfer, and court decisions were still pending at the end of the year.