Located in the center of the Balkan Peninsula, and being at the focal point of many geopolitical events, Macedonia has a rich cultural heritage. A small country, and therefore susceptible to foreign influence, Macedonia adopted many customs, cultural décor and religion. The article ahead will describe the religion in Macedonia, putting in context what you are going to see throughout your stay.
If you already explored this topic, there is a prevailing claim – Macedonia has a colorful religious landscape. The fact, however, is that majority of people practice the Orthodox faith, while a sizeable minority follows Islam.
No credible numbers have been put forth recently, and whatever statistics we have to work with is thanks to the last census way back in 2002. But who wants numbers, right? So let’s take a quick glance before delving deeper.
Outdated and likely misrepresentative, the numbers say that Eastern Orthodoxy accounts for 64.8% of the Macedonian population, with Islam being at 33.3%. The other groups of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, are marginal – Catholicism accounts for 0.4%, while other Christian faiths have a 0.7% following. Interesting enough – and this is likely changing, even though Macedonia is a very conservative country – only 0.5% report to be non-religious.
With Christianity and Islam being the most prevalent faiths, Macedonia has around 1200 churches, and around 400 mosques. What puts in context the long Christian tradition, though, is that there is no town without a church, while there are plenty without a mosque. But let’s talk about history before focusing on religious coexistence.
Macedonian religion in historical context
Analyzing the religious landscape, one has to look back as far as the first century AD. Christianity was always the dominant religion, hence much of the cultural tradition followed suit. It was only after the Ottoman conquest when Islam in Macedonia started to spread. Analyzing the current numbers, therefore, without providing some context is puzzling at best.
There is no such thing as Macedonian religion, since the demographic division is clear on the prevalence of two major religious affiliations. Due to a long tradition of Christianity, it is usually presumed that Macedonian religion refers to The Eastern Orthodox faith.
The Macedonian Orthodox Church
Christianity in Macedonia and the wider region dates back from apostle times. During his missionary journeys, Saint Paul the Apostle visited this region, due to a vision known as the Macedonian call. Christianization begun during the first 3 centuries AD, and by the 4th century Macedonians already had a church.
The Archbishopric of Ohrid was established in 1019, though political turmoil would have it suppressed throughout the centuries. The last significant religious meddling was in 1767, when a Sultan order gave the directive to Turkish authorities to abolish the Archbishopric.
The modern Macedonian Orthodox church, as an institution, dates back from 1959, when it finally gained autonomy from the Serbian Orthodox church, and the Ohrid Archbishopric was therefore restored as well. Looking back in retrospect, the town of Ohrid was always considered a spiritual capitol of the region. With more than 360 churches according to some estimates, it was, and still is, a sight to behold.
Macedonian churches, dating many centuries back, are a colorful testament to the past. The Macedonian monasteries are even more captivating, and they are indeed a sight to behold. Passed from one generation to another, and following the holy scripts, the Orthodox faith offers enlightenment to many Macedonians.
Visiting the monasteries and staying for a couple of days is a surreal experience you’ll be paying lip service for many years on end.
Islam in Macedonia
Dating from the 14th and 15th century, the Muslim influence in Macedonia grew rather noticeably. Settling in Macedonia, the Turks introduced many aspects of the Islamic culture, and by the 19th century most of the significant cities were populated by Muslims.
The local population started to convert to Islam, but the following geopolitical events would put this trend to a halt.
Nowadays, Macedonia has the largest proportion of Muslims in Europe, after Turkey, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 2002 census reported 500,000 people practicing the Islamic faith.
Macedonian Catholic Church
Established in 1918, the Macedonian Catholic Church has around 11.200 followers. It is by no means the only significant branch of Christianity in this country. The protestant church sent American missionaries to convert villages in the Strumica region to Methodism, and there is a Baptist community as well.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is also operating, mostly in the north of the country, and the number of followers corresponds with the number of Serbs, which is roughly 36,000.
Judaism in Macedonia
Parallel to the Christian faith, Judaism has been spreading in Macedonia since the 2nd century AD. Decimated by the Crusades, and then rising again during the Ottoman Empire, following the immigration of Sephardic Jews, the religion accounted for around 2% of the entire Macedonian population.
During the Second World War, and the occupation by Bulgaria, many of the Jews were sent to concentration camps, and many others have immigrated. Nowadays, the Jewish community in Macedonia counts less than 500 people.
Religious and secular society
Once colorful, the Macedonian religious landscape of today is pretty much divided between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Even the national holidays reflect this fact. With the Macedonian orthodox calendar populating most of them.
Often repressed, one religion had to endure for centuries before prospering again, and the current coexistence is a case study in progress. One that is surprisingly pleasant to observe, as both faiths have proven they are able to exist along one another.
Even secular nationalism have ruled Macedonia for quite a while – during the Yugoslavian federation, the religious institutions were victims to communism, and most of their property has been taken away. It took years of independence for many of these issues to be resolved by rule of law, denationalizing valuable chunks of state owned property.
Today, the constitution and other laws protect religious freedom, and there is complete separation between church and state –except, of course, for corrupt officials on both ends, that often put harm to the reputation of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.
Religion in Macedonia – a case study of coexistence
While we can speak of recent conflicts (2001), it is important to note that none of them stem from religious background. The somewhat benign divide exists based on ethnicity, and it just so happens that there is a general correlation between ethnic Albanians and Islamic religious affiliation.
The religious divide, however, brings with it a cultural divide. Many customs, be that around holidays, celebrations (marriages, funerals, birth of a child), or everyday routine, rely on religious expression.
It is not a rare sight to see masses of people attend a Christian ritual, at the same part of town where masses of people attend a Muslim one. Some municipalities are predominately Muslim, and some are predominately Christian, but no religious tension exists whatsoever.
The western part of the country, as well as the capital city is where most of the Muslim population resides, while on the eastern part there is hardly a tiny percentage. The capital of Skopje, more or less, follows a less striking but otherwise similar religious division.
In 2007, for the first time, a Muslim holiday entered the list of Public holidays.
Interestingly enough, law prevents religious private schools on the primary educational level, while there is no restriction for secondary schools or high education on religion. Lectures and religious teachings within religious institutions and objects are permitted as well.
One prediction states that Muslims in Macedonia will outnumber orthodox Christians by 2050, since the birth rate is much higher when put in comparison. These predictions, however, are farfetched since they neglect the rate of change in other parts of society, assuming a linear model of progression.
Macedonian churches and Macedonian monasteries
While mosques are definitely interesting for every western foreigner, the Macedonian churches are a rare testament of the past. Many of them built centuries back, they are part of the national cultural heritage. The capital of Skopje has a large number of churches, but only few of them date back more than a century. So if you would like to catalogue the past, it is necessary to step away from the urban area and travel to the periphery.
And while many smaller towns have historically significant religious objects, most of them can be found in Ohrid. A place unlike any other, it is where religious heritage blends perfectly with heavenly nature – an archetype so prevalent across the entire territory of Macedonia that it sets this country apart from many others.
The Macedonian monasteries on the other hand command attention right away. Secluded into hardly accessible mountain terrain, these are the spiritual universities of the country, guiding the Macedonian people for centuries back.
Make sure to visit the Saint Naum monastery, the church of Kaneo, The Joakim Osogovski monastery, Plaoshnik, and the church of St. Clement.
Visiting Macedonia without visiting these monuments of the past, regardless of your religious affiliation, is a traveling sacrilege. The spiritual and monastic vibe is what many people associate Macedonia with, and Ohrid is considered by many to be the spiritual capitol of the region.