A review about the Church and the State

PhD. Aleksandar Spasenovski

The autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA) as one of the many unsolved colossal issues of the Macedonian society, has justly provoked great interest in our public. The level of scrutiny with which the citizens approach the analysis of the existing opinions which come from different sources, is a result, above all, of the great sensitivity of this issue. This on the other hand corresponds with the importance of religious belief in the life of the citizens of Republic of North Macedonia, who are mainly Orthodox Christians.

Having in mind the above, as a contribution to the public debate, which has lately increased in intensity, among other reasons because of the various analysis and opinions from different centres, I would like to contribute with my analysis regarding the three of the issues which I believe need to be clarified more than ever.

The institutions recognize one Orthodox Church mentioned in the Constitution 

The system which was established with the creation of the Constitution from 17th of November 1991 defines the Republic of North Macedonia as a civil and democratic state with a model of secularism founded on three pillars: first, The international Western European standards; second, The traditions of the majority of the population, which is mostly with Orthodox Christian belief; third, The reality of the existing religions landscape, i.e. it’s versatility.

Regarding the issues mentioned in the above subtitle, I consider the first and the second pillar as the most important and the foundation of our constitutional legal system.

The international Western European standards, which have been incorporated in our constitutional legal system, although dating back to the beginning of Protestantism, have been established as a theoretical model for the natural human rights in the XVII and XVIII century. This process affected both Western Europe and North America. According to these ideas, as stated, the human rights and liberties are perceived as a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian ethics. The issue of the relations between the state and the religious organizations is viewed from the aspect of the model of their separation. Based on these premises, in 1776 the American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. Later, in 1789 the rebelling France adopted the Declaration for the Human and Citizen rights and finally in 1791 the American Bill of Rights was adopted. This laid the foundation of today’s system of human rights and liberties, part of which are the religious liberties and rights. Later on, with the development of the modern constitutionality these basic foundations found their place in the constitutions of the Western European states, as well as in the international documents. The most important of them is the Universal Declaration for Human Rights by United Nations from 1948. After that, on the foundation of these standards the international regional organizations were created, such as the European Council (E.C.), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (N.A.T.O.) and the European Union (E.U.), They too adopted other international regulations, which additionally clarify the legal frames, among the other things, regarding the abovementioned issues. This is done by the adoption of other international conventions which have been accepted by the member states, thus becoming part of their inner legal regulation.

The Macedonian model of secularism is based also on the experience and the traditions of the majority of the population, which are Orthodox Christians, from the State, the Byzantine Empire was based on the system of unity (symphony) between the two authorities. In this model, the Orthodox Church doesn’t achieve its primary goal based only on the activity regarding the realization of the basic spiritual premises, but rather it has the function of an integral part of the specific authority of the state. Therefore if the Church was not interconnected with the State, such State would not have been functional. This is the reason why the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church was connected with the specific state borders, so that if the state borders expanded, it was quite normal to expect that the Church’s jurisdiction would expand as well. And vice versa: if the jurisdiction of the Church expands, in that case political tendencies rise for the expansion of the State borders as well. Bottom line, in the period when the Orthodox nations fell under occupation, the Church was the one to “preserve the flame” for the revival of the statehood on the territory which was still under its jurisdiction.

In the aspect of the above mentioned, it’s obvious that there is a certain difference between the two concepts which make the body of the Macedonian model of secularism. Namely, unlike the modern international standards, where due to the concept of separation of the religious and state authority there is a possibility for pluralism, the Orthodox European East is founded on the unity of the ecclesiastic and government authorities, i.e. it is characterized by state integrity and collectivism. Still, having in mind such reality, the states with the majority of Orthodox Christians, within the frames of their efforts for building a democratic society, strive to build a system which will prove capable of implementing the international standards, on one hand, and also the Orthodox Christian traditions, on the other hand. In this sense, there are several successful examples in the cases of neighbouring Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. The same can be concluded for the Republic of North Macedonia as well.

Directed by the abovementioned, in the case of our state, the corresponding regulations in the Constitution as well as the other laws in this area were constructed in a similar way. Thus the article 19 of the Constitution of the state guarantees the freedom of religious belief (Paragraph 1). So according to it the citizens are given the freedom to publicly individually or in community with others confess their faith (Paragraph 2). Based on these two paragraphs, further on, when entering specifically in the reality of religious life, the constitution maker foresees that MOC as well as the Islamic religious organization, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical-Methodist church, the Jewish community and other religious communities and groups are separate from the state (Paragraph 3). Additionally, according to the same order of appearance, it is stated that the mentioned religious organizations are free to open religious schools, social and charity organizations, following a corresponding legal procedure Paragraph (4). According to the abovementioned, one can conclude that the constitution maker guarantees, in a wide frame, the freedom of religious belief, but with the accent on the special status of MOC. Namely, it is mentioned first with simultaneous confirmation of this fact through the distinction from the other religious organizations, which have been listed with the words “as well as”. In this regard, considering the fore mentioned, it’s important to mark that the Macedonian model of relation with the religious organizations is placed somewhere in the middle between the model of a state religion and the model of secularism. This is because in historical constitutional and symbolical sense, MOC-OA is distinguished from other religious constitutions, but still the basic rights as well as the guarantee of the freedom of religious belief is on the level of the democratic standards of the modern world. That’s why when it comes to the Orthodox Christianity of the Republic of North Macedonia I consider that one should not use the word construction “conflict of the churches in the country” because the state does not recognize such plurality.

The autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric is a legitimate aspiration of the Orthodox Christians on the territory of the Republic of North Macedonia.

The efforts of the Orthodox Christians on the territory of today’s Republic of North Macedonia, for the revival of the Ohrid Archbishopric, as absolutely consensual, have been fulfilled with the birth of the MOC-OA in the time when our country, as a Socialist Republic, is part of the Yugoslav Federation. Having in mind the above statement, any claim about the “founding”, “independent” role of the socialist state leadership in the birth of the MOC-OA is not entirely true and it minimizes the centuries-old aspirations of the large majority of Orthodox Christians for the organizing of their own Church. Consequently, it is logical to conclude that by supporting these citizens’ aspiration, the Socialist Yugoslav Government did not apply the “divide and rule” tactic, as it is often stated, when talking about the revival the OA in the birth of the MOC (thus insinuating that divisions among the Orthodox Christians in Yugoslavia were made on purpose), but rather acted extremely pragmatically. In fact the state supported a solution which ended an important issue that would have caused serious problems if it wasn’t urgently solved. In this regard, even the argument that the revival of the OA through the founding of the MOC would violate the important canon that within one country there can be only one Orthodox Church, is not entirely justified and correct, because the former Federation of Yugoslavia was an entity composed of several units, i.e. states, in which the citizens were not forbidden to establish an autocephalous orthodox Church, if they deemed it necessary. And finally, in this sense, I also find inapplicable the request of the Serbian Orthodox Church, that on the territory of today’s Republic of North Macedonia, the regulations of the Tomos of 1920 should be applied, because this document, which the Church received from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, refers to another state, the Kingdom of SCS, which does not exist anymore. 

The Ecumenical Patriarch has the legitimate right to solve the Macedonian ecclesiastical issue.

The new dynamics connected with the autocephaly of MOC-OA started developing during 2017 and 2018, and the peak of this process was the letter by the Synod of MOC addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in which the Patriarch of Constantinople was asked to apply his right of appeal and finally solve the Macedonian ecclesiastical issue. This was supposed to go through several stages. The letters of the political authorities of the Republic of North Macedonia addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch on 20.09.2020 and 22.09.2020 confirmed even more, both domestically and internationally, this perception in regards to the previously declared consensus. In the meantime His All Holiness in a radio interview from 2019 also stated his view on this matter, setting up the trajectory for the final solution of the Macedonian ecclesiastic issue. He announced that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, based on its historically founded authority, would apply its right of appeal according to the request for ekkliton by the MOC-OA. This right was established during the fourth Ecumenical Council and it refers to the Ecumenical Patriarch’s sole privilege of making final decisions in inter-ecclesiastical disputes. This means that finally, after so many decades, the issue would become international i.e. would stop being exclusive right of the SOC only.

Having in mind the above, when analysing this process, it’s very important to be precise in the interpretation of the views and opinions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding our ecclesiastic issue. Namely, it’s my belief that the opinion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that in the case of the MOC “the schism would be healed”, should be interpreted in the spirit of the Orthodox Tradition, according to which the autocephaly of the contemporary heir of the Ohrid Archbishopric is not a problem in itself, but rather the main priority should be the restoring of the catholicity of the Church. The overcoming of this obstacle  is an introduction to the future final solution of the status of the MOC.


Aware of the notion that optimism does not need facts (as well as pessimism) I believe that the Republic of North Macedonia and its Church have entered the new 2021 with a moderate optimism for the beginning of the process for the resolving of the ecclesiastical issue, which is evident from these four sets of circumstances. First, the internal ecclesiastical aspects of the dispute. As in the previous years, in 2021, it is justly expected that the consensus in the Synod of the MOC-OA would be maintained in regards to the expectations that the Ecumenical Patriarchate would exercise his right of appeal; second, the inner political aspects of the issue. As with the internal situation in the MOC-OA, in this part as well, it should be expected that the support from the state leadership will be maintained at a high level, emphasizing that the support to the efforts for a legitimate granting of an autocephalous status to the MOC-OA, over the years to date is in full compliance with the principle of secularism, as well as with the Constitution and the laws of the state; third, the foreign political aspects of the dispute. In regards to this element, the circumstances are quite favourable. Namely, as almost never before in history, the process of solving the issue of the MOC-OA, on both sides, more precisely the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the MOC-OA – is entirely aligned with the Euro-Atlantic orientation of the country, as well as with the declared US interests regarding the international political relations; fourth, the external-ecclesiastical aspects of the dispute. In regards to this matter, unlike the previous aspects, the circumstances in 2021 have changed due to the new event in the SOC, the death of the Patriarch Irineos. Therefore, no particular intensifications of the dynamics should be expected on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding the Serbian Orthodox Church, before the end of the procedures for the election of the new Patriarch. At the same time, knowing how powerful the influence of the Church leaders is, the newly elected Patriarch who after Patriarch Irineos will take the throne of the Peć Patriarchate might be equally important for the resolution of this dispute.

The issue regarding the autocephaly of the MOC-OA, is the last unresolved important national and state issue, the successful resolution of which will irreversibly strengthen the stability of North Macedonia. The current circumstances on this matter, at the beginning of 2021, give rise to a moderate optimism for possible steps towards the final and faster beginning of the process for the resolution of the Macedonian ecclesiastical issue. The personality of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as his legacy in the decades long governing of the Church in the light of his historic momentum, give hope that this generation of Orthodox Christians will witness the inclusion of the MOC-OA in the community of the other Local Orthodox Churches. It’s only through sincere debate and respect for the views of our conversationalist as well as precise interpretation of the facts can the public opinion, experts on the subject and the society on the whole give positive contribution in the overcoming of one of the last major obstacles on the path towards total freedom of the orthodox Christians in this part of the world.