Greek PM calls upon bishops to work for peace in the Balkans

THESSALONIKI – Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis yesterday called upon religious leaders in the Balkans to help convince their people of the need for reconciliation so they can work toward membership of the European Union. Speaking at a religious conference organized by the Orthodox Church of Greece and members of the European Popular Party, which groups Europe’s conservative parties, Karamanlis said EU members also had to work with Balkan countries to help them set aside past differences. «All of us must prosper. This goal needs all of us who share in the rewards of participation in the EU to not distance ourselves from the needs of our neighbors. We must share with them the example of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence,» Karamanlis said. Two regional leaders attending the conference, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, also said religious institutions must contribute. Sanader also said he would soon visit Belgrade and had invited Kostunica to visit Zagreb. «I want to improve and bolster our bilateral relations,» Sanader said. «I will do whatever possible so that the 21st century is one of reconciliation between our peoples.» Kostunica, however, complained that Serbs were suffering in his country’s Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo. «Those who are lacking in basic rights and religious freedom are the Serbs,» he said. An indication of the tension that still remains in the Balkans was Kostunica’s delayed arrival in this northern port so he could protest the FYROM authorities’ refusal to let a Serbian bishop transit their country on his way to the same gathering. Bishop Irinej tried to pass through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on his way to Thessaloniki but FYROM border guards turned him back. «With such tactics you can’t solve anything. They asked me to take off my robes to cross the country,» Irinej said in Thessaloniki. FYROM authorities confirmed the report, but added that Irinej was later allowed to pass. Serbia’s private Beta news agency said Kostunica later flew from Belgrade to Thessaloniki with a 90-minute delay after learning that the Macedonian authorities had allowed Irinej through. It was the latest in a series of similar incidents underscoring tensions between Serbian and FYROM religious and secular authorities linked to a decades-old dispute between the dominant Christian denominations in the two Balkan states. In 1967, a group of priests from what was then the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia proclaimed independence from the Serbian Church and founded the «Macedonian Orthodox Church.» Lacking the recognition it wanted from other Christian churches around the world, FYROM’s church became the official, state-supported organization when FYROM became an independent state in 1991 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The dispute between the two Orthodox churches has threatened relations between Serbia and FYROM, particularly after several similar incidents in recent years and after the recent arrest and trial of a renegade FYROM priest who expressed loyalty to the Serbian Orthodox Church. He was sentenced in absentia to one-and-a-half years in prison for «inciting religious hatred.»