(INTERVIEW) Nikolovski: Russian Church Players in MOC-OA Imposed Fake Public Topics

The more believers praise the Russian Church, the greater its influence. Hypothetically, if the Russian Church is “saving our Church”, why wouldn’t the Russian state “save” our country from the bad West that wants to, allegedly, ruin everything? This is how these stories are developed, says Marjan Nikolovski, editor of Religija.mk, who was recently summoned by the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church at the Ecclesiastical Court for his published articles 


Three months have passed since the public found out that Marjan Nikolovski, editor, journalist, and owner of the portal “Religija.mk” was summoned by the Ecclesiastical Court of Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archdiocese of Ohrid (MOC-OA) for his alleged dissemination of hatred among believers and the leadership – the Synod of MOC. The same amount of time has passed since he publicly refused to appear before the ecclesiastical court. In this interview for Meta.mk he talks about the event that stirred up so much public attention, but also touches upon the issues of autocephaly in the MOC-OA, the Russian influence as well as the distancing relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. 

Can you be more specific as to why you were summoned by the Ecclesiastical Court, and have you felt any pressure, repercussions, or possibly excommunication? 


”It is not easy to criticize bishops” – Marjan Nikolovski, editor of Religija.mk | Photo: Personal archive

NIKOLOVSKI: As far as I know, the case is still open. To put it differently, the procedure started on the day I was supposed to appear for the hearing of the Ecclesiastical Prosecutor. I did not go since the Church has no right to hold journalists accountable in its courts. I did not show up simply because I did not want to legitimize such a process. The Ecclesiastical Prosecutor, however, and whoever else was in the archdiocese on that date, probably adopted their conclusions. I still haven’t been informed of the outcome. However, the last Synod session held on the 29 of February is proof that the procedure is still ongoing when in a regular composition, three bishops – Stefan, Petar, and Timotej – assessed my work as a journalist. Although they tried to mitigate the consequences of their response, they nevertheless decided to publish my name and surname in the official announcement of the Church – ”the Holy Synod of the MOC-OA, having assessed the articles written by Mr. Marjan Nikolovski on the portal Religija.mk, advised him to study appropriately topics related to the Church when publishing articles to avoid misinforming the public”. This might mean that the procedure was transformed from a church exclusion possibility to public counsel. The bishops, however, should know that merely mentioning my name, or the name of any other journalist, in the official Church Announcement, constitutes a form of exerting pressure. 

In addition, things are not settling down lately. On the contrary, they are escalating with the ongoing public addresses of some of the bishops against me, insulting and undermining me and I think that that will continue. Fanatic believers, quasi-patriots, and degraded political figures follow up on their comments on social media and create an even more inflammatory environment. But I will endure this and continue to respond appropriately. The problem is that in Macedonia’s media sector, a few journalists deal with this issue. There are knowledgeable people, but they are not involved with these problems daily. Therefore, Religija.mk and I seem to be poking bishops by frequently taking them outside of their comfort zone where they are used to operate in. Criticizing bishops is not an easy job. 

Otherwise, the main reason, as I informed then, was the fact that in the last couple of years, I have been regularly pointing out the strong Russian influence spreading in Macedonia through the Church, particularly through the three bishops. Those are the same ones who tried to rebel against me, institutionally through the Church, and now through public lynching.

Recently, the professor at the Security Faculty, Marjan Gjurovski, warned that high Church officials of the Synod were maintaining close relations with representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church who, according to the intelligence data revealed by President Stevo Pendarovski, were also collaborators of Russian intelligence. A denial by the spokesman of the Holy Synod of Bishops (SAS), bishop Timotej, followed. As knowledgeable on the subject, would you like to comment on these statements – who are the Church officials involved and, how strong is the Russian influence in the country exerted through the ROC? 

NIKOLOVSKI: Professor Gjurovski said the same thing that the President of the country stated – something that is known to the top officials of the MOC-OA. That information was revealed to the Head of the MOC-OA by several security service sources. Where is the risk from such activities? Russia’s interest in the Balkans is indisputable. The interest in influencing the Balkans has historic roots. The current relations between Europe and Russia, especially the Russian aggression in Ukraine, additionally alarmed the security services to encounter information. That process is legitimate for every country. 

Russian influence in Macedonia is insignificant seen from the perspective of penetration through politics, economy, or media. Our politicians promoting Russian interests are marginal. We have the participation of the Russian economy that is not powerful enough to enable Russian influence. We have marginal, incredible, and compromised online media or media figures who are close to Russian political positions. And if all that is put on the one side, it becomes obvious that this is a minimalistic channel for spreading Russian influence. That is why the Church was selected as an institution with extremely high societal confidence that can easily direct and affirm Russian policies and positions in society. For that purpose, Russia uses its Church and abuses Macedonian Church interests in the process, by playing the emotional card related to the name of the Church, even though for ecclesiastical Moscow, until two years ago, the MOC-OA was a schismatic organization identified as the so-called Macedonian Church. 

And that is where the “common” interest lies for both the Russian Church and specifically for MOC-OA bishops. The more believers praise the Russian Church, the greater its influence. Hypothetically, if the Russian Church “is saving” our Church, then why not save our country from the bad West that wants to destroy, apparently, everything? That is how those stories are told. 

Although MOC-OA was recognized first by the SOC, with the so-called Tomos acknowledging our autocephaly leading to normalization of relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and most of the local Orthodox Churches, many experts say that the real Tomos should follow from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and until that document is received the autocephaly of MOC-OA is not yet recognized. Is that true, and if yes, why has so much time passed, and the document has still not been received? Is the name of MOC-OA the reason or, as you write yourself, is it an issue related to the attitude of our Church towards the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? 

Metropolitan from Plaosnik-Struga and Debar and Kicevo and the Administrator from Australia-Sydney Timotej and his Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (left) in Constantinople, March 2023 | Photo: Diocese of Debar and Kicevo, Ohrid

NIKOLOVSKI: The resolution of the Macedonian Church issue is happening in an extremely complicated period for the Orthodoxy. Like never before Constantinople and Moscow are on opposite sides. And that was a good opportunity for the MOC-OA. Historic circumstances simply fell into place. That said, however, we should not forget that the issue of Macedonian autocephaly did not start with the SOC, but more than seven years ago. It began when the MOC-OA decided to take the problem beyond the backyard of the SOC and imposed it as a problem for the entire Orthodoxy. That is how the letter from the Bulgarian Church appeared, followed by the appeal process before the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In that period, the SOC was still refusing talks, until the moment when the Ecumenical Patriarchate put the issue on the agenda. The SOC, then, changed its strategy under the influence of Moscow and decided to enter the process with its interests. It issued an autocephaly agreeing document and called it Tomos, clearly indicating that the MOC-OA was facing a referendum for its autocephaly in front of all other autocephaly churches. 

In addition, the name becomes a problem, not only for the Greek-language churches but for all of them. There would not have been a problem if the MOC-OA thanked the SOC, taking the same document to Fanar and saying that it had the consent of the “Mother Church” for autocephaly. Up to now, the Ecumenical Patriarch, most probably, would have come to Ohrid to bring the autocephaly Tomos. But, instead of that, Russian Church actors within the MOC-OA launched a campaign against Constantinople as ordered by Moscow. Moscow had vested interests in preventing Tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, something that all contemporary autocephalies have. Russian church players within the MOC-OA imposed false public topics. One of those topics was that the Ecumenical Patriarchate wanted to take over the diaspora i.e., the churches in the diaspora to be under its jurisdiction, something known as a lie even to the ordinary believer. The second topic imposed was about the Ecumenical Patriarchate Tomos, that the MOC-OA would lose its identity and the Macedonian name although the Ecumenical Patriarchate was expecting the MOC-OA to choose the name under which the church would be registered in the Diptych – “Ohrid Archdiocese”, or “Church of North Macedonia”, like all the other churches, since national naming of churches is not the same as official naming. 

What happened in the meantime? Out of all 13 autocephaly churches where the Tomos from the SOC was sent, only two accepted it fully, the Russian and the Bulgarian. The Bulgarian gave a name to “MOC-OA – Church of North Macedonia”, with a “North-Macedonian” Archbishop. The Russian Church uses the name MOC-OA. The Romanian Church accepted the Tomos but stressed that it was waiting for the official Tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The name of recognition of MOC-OA was Archdiocese of Ohrid and North Macedonia, while the archbishop’s title was Archbishop of Ohrid, Skopje and North Macedonia. The fourth church was the SOC. The other ten autocephaly churches did not accept SOC’s Tomos and for them, the MOC-OA was not an autocephaly church until the Tomos was presented by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. That is the actual situation at the moment. 

The issue of Ukraine was imposed in mid-June last year when the delegation of the MOC-OA visited Fanar. But, once the Russian actors within the MOC-OA failed to sell their fake theses and when the topics did not become part of the discussions during the last visit of Constantinople, then they decided to push the MOC-OA to adopt a position that it will never recognize Ukrainian autocephaly. That came as a new blow to the Ecumenical Patriarchate because if it gave you autocephaly, where is the logic for you to dispute the autocephaly granted to Ukraine? Whose interests are you defending? Especially now when Ukraine is the key issue for which the Ecumenical Patriarchate was waiting for the response of the MOC-OA. The last information was that a Commission within the MOC-OA was established to review the issue, so we shall see what will come out of that. 

Do you have information on the reasons for the distant relations created between the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, although several years ago (November 2017) the MOC-OA called and recognized BOC its “Mother Church”, openly requiring recognition? Did our bishops forget about that position, and some even hesitated seen through the decisions taken by the Mixed Commission on Historical and Educational Issues on the section on church-related education in the textbooks? Until recently, a clarification on the relations between the Ohrid Archdiocese and Trnovo Patriarchate was published on the website of the MOC-OA, but now that section has been changed and removed? 

NIKOLOVSKI: Honestly, I am not familiar with this. I don’t remember seeing such a comparison, so I cannot analyze it. However, the relations between the MOC-OA and the BOC are strange. I wouldn’t say that the relations have become distant. Maybe there is a bit more distrust, reflecting the distrust in all other societal spheres between the two countries. The last two years, the MOC-OA and the BOC have been co-serving here in Macedonia – recently in Kratovo, and before that in the Bitola area, and over there in Plovdiv – and as far as I know they co-served together for the first time in Jerusalem once the MOC-OA returned to the canonic unity by the Ecumenical Patriarchate decision. If one scrutinizes the events from 2017 up to date, I think that the Bulgarian Church in 2017 was (mis)used for higher purposes which the MOC-OA is now accomplishing. In my opinion, requesting the recognition from the BOC and its acknowledgement as “Mother Church” aimed at taking the church-related issue from the backyard of the SOC and making it a problem for the Orthodoxy. No-one expected the BOC to recognize the MOC-OA and co-serve with it – the condition to be met if the MOC-OA was to see “Mother Church” in the BOC. On the contrary, the idea was to push, most probably, the BOC into the problem and the BOC, consciously or subconsciously, accepted the game and established a commission that was supposed to analyze the request submitted by the MOC-OA. That was when the Ecumenical Patriarch responded by saying that the BOC had no competence for such a thing and that it was the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A year later, the MOC-OA followed up with an appeal to Fanar. For the Bulgarian Church an additional problem was the name “Ohrid Archdiocese”. Somewhere in between these two reasons lies the cause for its unprincipled and undermining position to name the MOC-OA as “North-Macedonian church”. hubeng


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