A church was set on fire in Macedonia late Monday, as underlying tensions between the Slavic and Albanian population resurfaced, more than a decade after the country tottered on the verge of a war along ethnic lines.
Police said the St Nikola church in Labuniste, a village near Struga in southwestern Macedonia, was attacked by ‘arsonists’, said Interior Ministry spokesman Stefan Dimovski.
The incident followed the burning of a Macedonian flag in Struga by Albanians and the raising of Albanian and Islamist flags, in reaction to a local carnival in the previous week in which Islam was mocked.
The ethnic-Albanian mayor of Struga, Ramiz Merko, said Monday that he believed the fire had not been set, and urged the carnival organizers to apologize to Muslims. Most Albanians are Muslim.
Reports said the situation in the area was tense and people were frightened.
Struga is an ethnically mixed town on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s best-known vacation destination. It lies directly on the de facto line of separation between the Slavic and Albanian Macedonian population.
Macedonia had come to the verge of a civil war in 2001, when Albanians – who make up between one-quarter and one-third of the population – rebelled, demanding more rights.
An escalation of the conflict was averted with a peace-and-reform deal brokered by NATO in Ohrid after six months of fighting.
The deal improved the position of Albanians: Albanian was promoted to an official language; a university in an Albanian town was recognized; and the country’s administrative boundaries were redrawn.
As a consequence, Macedonia’s population was virtually divided, with Albanians dominating municipalities in the west, along the border with the country of Albania.
Many Macedonians resent the Ohrid peace accord because they feel their country has been lined up for partition along ethnic lines.
Macedonia is governed by a coalition of the conservative Slavic Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE party and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration.