Crosses as symbols of (in)hospitality

The cross is symbol of the Christian religion and the suffering and the salvation. In the last few years, it has been abused with crosses being erected throughout Macedonia. Crosses made of various materials and with various dimensions, from monumental to symbolic, have been erected in Skopje, Shtip, Prilep, Krushevo, Bogdanci, Drachevo, Madjari, Zelenikovo, Pletvar, on Mount Vodno, in Aerodrom municipality, Misleshevo, Leskoec near Ohrid, Novaci, Stojakovo, Novo Selo near Shtip, Vidovishte, Zrnovce, Bitola, Jankoec, Pretor, Slivnica, Shtrbovo, Dolno Lagovo, Selce, Dren and so forth…

 

Author: Aleksandar Pisarev

 

We repeatedly see this symbol in the Macedonian “Eastern variant”, albeit, until recently, the erection of crosses in towns, on crossroads and hills above settlements, has mainly been related to the Western Christianity, i.e. the Catholic Church, according to the orthodox iconography and Byzantine heritage. And primarily it is utilized as a tool to marking and divide the territory on ethnic and religious basis.

 

CHRISTIANITY ON EVERY METRЕ

Nikos Chausidis, professor of Visual Arts Semiotics (the science of signs that represent something) at the Institute of History of Art and Archeology at the Faculty of Philosophy in Skopje, says that erecting  crosses as marks or testaments, is not a popular tradition in orthodox Christianity as much as it is in Catholicism.

There are no records that medieval rulers and founders have been erecting such crosses for territory marking in orthodox area, Chausidis says.

During the Pre-Christian period, totems have been placed on roads and crossroads and later they have been replaced with crosses, and this practice resembles a pagan custom.

This manner has been especially popular in the Catholic parts of ex-Yugoslavia: in Croatia, Slovenia and some parts from Vojvodina, during the second quarter of the 19th century. The Catholics from Vojvodina have been to implement this practice, when it comes to this area. It started with “small altars” on the crossroads, so that believers could worship during their journey.

Maja Arsova, an architect, who has studied and compared the identity images of urban communities throughout Macedonia and European cities in the last ten years, says that often criteria for building large crosses and religious objects are not part of the spiritual and religious needs of the locals and that religious objects represent symbolic acts of religious demarcation.

The bishop of the European Diocese of the Macedonian Orthodox Church – The Ohrid Archdiocese (MOC-OA) Pimen, says that the mass construction of crosses, bell towers, chapels and minarets represents territory marking.

Unfortunately, besides being a “decorative element”, these objects have the role of showing dominance of a certain area, something like territory markers, bishop Pimen says.

 

WHEN RELIGION BECOMES FASHION

With the construction of the Millennium cross on Mount Vodno, the trend of spending citizens’ money for religious objects i.e. state support, began in Macedonia. Immediately after the elections in 2006, the government reached a decree to finance the construction of the church “Saint Constantin and Helena” at Macedonia Square, having the Ministry of Culture as a project conductor.

Also, the government gave 150.000 euro for the construction of the church “All Saints” in Bitola. This example was followed by almost every municipality in Macedonia, which started initiatives and offered financial reliefs and communal taxes exemption for founders of crosses and churches. Person who builds a cross or a church is also exempted from the tax burdens during the construction progress.

The construction of crosses and new churches in Shtip, Prilep, Krushevo, Strumica, Kichevo, Misleshevo, Leskoec near Ohrid, Novaci, Stojakovo, Novo Selo near Shtip, Vidovishte, Zrnovce, Bitola, Jankoec, Pretor, Slivnica, Shtrbovo, Dolno Lagovo, Selce, Dren and so forth, began with church-state ceremonies and solemnities, which besides the high clergy, were attended by current politicians with the Prime minister among them, and numerous individuals, groups, municipal management and businessmen as well.

Moreover, the government’s decision to build churches within the framework of the project “Skopje 2014” directly deteriorates state’s secularity. One such project had an inglorious finale on the Skopje Fortress.

MOBILIZATION AGAINST ISLAM

By the end of 2013, the World Macedonian Congress (WMC), supported by the local government of the municipality of Aerodrom, decided to build a 55-meter high “Macedonian Cross”. This is the most flagrant example of an open call for segregation, division on ethnic and religious verges, with a church blessing and usurpation of public space, which belongs to every citizen..

The president of WMC, Todor Petrov, notified the attendants of this state-church solemnity:

“The Macedonians, Christians, recognize their own ethnic space and they have to mark it with a symbol they believe in. The Cross is Macedonians’ ID and they have the right to mark their ethnic space with it.”.

MOC-OA also approves the construction of the large cross in Aerodrom municipality, as a symbol of territory defense that belongs to Christians.

Furthermore, MOC-OA believes that the construction of such religious symbols is designated to prevent the “Muslim’s conquering tendencies” who begin to settle the traditional Christian areas.

Hence, religion gained even larger and more significant role in the Macedonian political and public life too. It is not just an individual matter anymore, yet it creates potential to affect the society and politics and also becomes an important factor in the political and public life. What is really upsetting is Church’s greater influence upon public space, which, by definition, ought to be secular and deprived from any religious influence.

 

 THE SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH (SOC) IS AGAINST CROSSES ON THE STREETS

In Serbia and Bosnia, the Church stays away from the participation in such “Church and people” manifestations and assesses that this manner of erecting crosses on every crossroad is not in compliance with Orthodox Christianity and it could be the apple of discord among citizens. The Church confronts such tendencies.

Stojadin Pavlovic, a priest and editor-in-chief of the Serbian religious television “Hram”, was the first to confront the initiators who wanted to build a cross in the Belgrade municipality Stari Grad and he says:

Citizens have the right to express their opinion, however, erecting crosses in cases unfamiliar to church’s tradition is highly inadequate. Utilization and placement of crosses, without deeper understanding of their goal, on places and in situations which are foreign and unfamiliar to the orthodox Christian tradition is also inadequate. As most recognized Christian symbol, the cross has to be placed on top of churches and inside temples, as well as object that are used in religious service, in Christian homes or on Christians’ chests, who wear it as protection with church’s blessing, priest Pavlovikj says.

ANALOGY WITH BOSNIA

Setting the foundation stone for the cross in the Skopje multiconfessional settlement Butel, during the pre-election period, represents an open provocation and utilization of a religious symbol for political purposes.

Regarding this event, bishop Pimen wrote:

Eagles and crosses. Provocations and falling under provocations. Throughout the world, monuments are usually erected as signs that end bloodsheds and madness. It’s different when it comes to us. These symbols are erected to start madness, wrote bishop Pimen.

The president of the government Commission for Communication with the Religious Communities and Religious Groups, Valentina Bozhinovska, has differing opinion and energetically defends the setting of the cross in the Skopje settlement Butel as a legitimate right of Macedonians.

You do not practice religion by building crosses, churches and chapels. You practice religion on each and every step you make, 365 days in the year, by showing attention, respecting the others, caring, expressing sympathy, showing solidarity and love.

Such analogy of events, after 1992, we see only in Bosnia, where radical structures attempted to mobilize voters with the cross during the pre-election period. In the Sarajevo multiethnic settlement Zlatishte, inhabited by Muslims and Christians, Aleksandar Todorovic, a director of “Elektrodistribucija” in East Sarajevo, who is also a member of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, that has Milorad Dodik as a president (who is also a president of Republika Srpska), erected a cross more than 30 meters tall overnight. This act was interpreted as a provocation and Sarajevo was on the verge of interethnic and interreligious clash, due to the fact that the opposing group wanted to destroy the cross while the constructors were prepared to defend it at any cost. Aljosha Campara, deputy mayor of Sarajevo, stated that such act is anti-civilizational and insults the religious feelings of the citizens. Therefore, an assistance from the international community was requested in order to immediately remove the cross. Sarajevo’s mayor Semih Borovac and a representative of the Serbian Orthodox Church managed to calm the tensions and successfully made the initiators to remove the cross.

 

“OTHERS” ARE NOT WELCOMED

The ex-president of the Commission for Communication with Religious Communities and Religious Groups in Macedonia, professor Cane Mojanoski says: “such monuments represent markers of territory conquered by ethnically defined political parties. For them, religious monuments are not temples of religion for quite a long time, yet tools for accomplishing and manifesting their political power, and every religiously based homogenization can only harm Macedonia”.

He also believes that the construction of such monuments represents a newly created manner of the current authorities, and also, a political strategy for ethnic and religious marking of territories in Macedonia, and this move can, on a long term basis, be interpreted as a sign showing that “others” are not welcomed on the already marked territories.

The ex-president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and civil activist, professor Mirjana Najchevska, says that feeling of religious affiliation is a human right that cannot be jeopardized.

However, the state very often openly interferes in the religious issues and under the disguise of protecting the national interests, gives a unique role to MOC-OA thereby directly participating in the deterioration of the secular character of the state. In situations like this, the interethnic tensions easily become religious and they open road for clear division of citizens, which in given moments is employed for quick mobilization toward violene, Najchevska assesses.

 

 


This article was created within the framework of the Project to increase the accountability of the politicians and political parties Truthmeter implemented by Metamorphosis. The article is made possible by the generous support of the National Endowment for Democracy(NED) and The Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD), a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an initiative that supports democracy, good governance, and Euroatlantic integration in Southeastern Europe. The content is the responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, National Endowment for Democracy, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.

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