Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Church set on fire after carnival

Muslims were offended by Orthodox Christians in Macedonia mocking the burka and the Koran

An Orthodox Christian church famed for its valuable icons was set alight in southern Macedonia overnight amid religious tension between Christians and minority Muslims over a carnival in which Orthodox Christian men dressed as women in burkas and mocked the Koran.

Firefighters extinguished the fire on Monday night in the two century-old Sveti Nikola church, near the town of Struga. The church's roof was destroyed but its icons were not damaged, the fire service said.

Hours before the fire, Muslim leaders had appealed for calm among community members.

The January 13 Vevcani festival prompted angry, sometimes violent demonstrations by Muslims, who are nearly all ethnic Albanian and make up 33% of the country's 2.1 million population and accuse the majority of stoking hatred against them.

Ethnic tension has been simmering in this small Balkan country since the end of an armed rebellion in 2001, when ethnic Albanian rebels fought government forces for about eight months, seeking greater rights for their community. The conflict left 80 people dead, and ended with the intervention of Nato peacekeepers.

The Vevcani carnival, said to have been held for some 1,400 years, attracts thousands of visitors. Local residents traditionally wear elaborate, frequently sarcastic masks, with some of the most common costumes including devils and demons.

But this year's perceived mockery of the Koran and the burka costumes caused outrage.

On Saturday, protesters attacked an inter-city bus heading from Struga to Vevcani, throwing rocks at the vehicle but injuring nobody. They also defaced a Macedonian flag outside Struga's municipal building, replacing it with a green flag representing Islam. On the same day, perpetrators attacked a church in the nearby village of Labunista, destroying a cross standing outside.

Macedonian Muslim leaders called for restraint but also accused the government of promoting Islamophobia.

Deputy Prime Minister Musa Xhaferi said such incidents "create discord" and "violate mutual respect and trust."

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