Law and Religion in Macedonia

Leilani Maldonado


In Macedonia, religious identity shares deep roots with ethnic identity. Most Serbs and ethnic Macedonians are Orthodox Christian, while most ethnic Albanians, Turks, and Roma adhere to Islam. Comprising nearly two-thirds of the country’s inhabitants, the Macedonian Orthodox Church is Macedonia’s predominant faith; Islam is the second largest religion and accounts for a third of the population. Minority Christians and other groups make up the remaining 5% of the population.

The 2002 nationwide census reported that over 64% of the population belongs to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, an autocephalous branch of the Orthodox Church that operates in Macedonia as well as abroad. The census reported 700,600 Orthodox Christians under 40 years old and 630,000 over 40. The male-female ratio of Orthodox members is approximately 1 to 1. There are eight dioceses and over 1,500 churches within the country, as well as four dioceses and hundreds of churches that serve the Macedonian diaspora in other countries. While many Orthodox Christians are not deeply religious in their practices, the Church remains strong, baptizing 30,000 new members every year.

Islam, the second largest religion in Macedonia, has maintained a significant presence and cultural influence since the Ottoman invasions of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Ottoman census of 1904 reported that 37% of the population were Muslims. This number dropped slightly in the following decades, but rose again to 30% in 1991. Muslims now make up a full third of the population, and already dominate some of the western regions of Macedonia. Their numbers are expected to continue growing; the 2002 census reports 190,000 Muslims over 40 years old, and 480,000 Muslims under 40. With Muslims, too, the gender ratio of religious affiliation is nearly equal. There are about 580 mosques throughout the country

In comparison with Orthodoxy and Islam, an extremely small percentage of Macedonians belong to other religions. The Macedonian Catholic Church claims some 11,000 members, while about 200 Jews and a few thousand Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Sufis, and those claiming no religious affiliation account for the rest of the population.


Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, religion was the strongest source of identity for the peoples of Macedonia, and the culture of today is largely shaped by the centuries-old influences of the Orthodox Church and Islamic traditions. The country has seen little of religious uniformity through the centuries, and many of its conflicts have stemmed from ethno-religious tensions.

Christianity came to Macedonia shortly after the time of Christ, with Paul’s visit to the Jewish communities in the region. The Christian church solidified its presence in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman emperor, issued an edict of religious tolerance in order to strengthen Christianity’s hold across the empire. In the sixth century AD, Slavs began to settle the region in large numbers, and most converted to Christianity in the subsequent three hundred years. In 1019, the Eastern Orthodox Church formalized its presence in Macedonia by creating the Archbishopric of Ohrid.

Jews had come to Macedonia previous to its occupation by the Romans, attempting to flee persecution in already conquered territories. Their community prospered over the next several generations. In the eleventh century, the First Crusade arrived in Macedonia and decimated much of the Jewish population. The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions of the fifteenth century sent a new wave of refugee Jews to eastern Europe; the Ottoman Sultan welcomed these immigrants, granting them a great measure of autonomy as well as commercial and property rights.

The Ottoman invasion of the previous century had brought scores of Muslim Turks into the Balkans, and their influence led many Albanians and some ethnic Macedonians to convert to Islam as well. The Ottomans generally showed tolerance toward the Christian faith, but the Christian churches suffered great material damage as the military conquest demolished cities, villages, and church properties. 

As the Ottoman feudal system gained strength, the Orthodox Church gradually lost its political standing and its members were often oppressed to the point of slavery. The Church turned to neighboring Catholic states for help in liberating their country from the Ottomans, and the Russian tsars responded. However, their efforts to ignite rebellions against the Sultan failed, and increasing Muslim fanaticism in the region led much of the population to convert to Islam in the interest of self-preservation. The Church’s position was further weakened by the efforts of the Patriarchy of Constantinople to oust the Orthodox Church as the seat of Christianity in Macedonia. The Sultan abolished the Archbishopric of Ohrid in 1767, and by the 1800s most of the cities in the region were primarily Muslim.

However, the tide turned for Christians after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, which ended badly for the Ottoman Empire and spelled the decline of its power in Europe. The Congress of Berlin returned the lands of Macedonia to the Turks in exchange for a promise of cultural reform. Around this time, American missionaries of the Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran faiths began arriving in Eastern Europe to establish their churches in the region. The effect of their proselytizing was small but long-lasting, as a few hundred Macedonians adhere to these denominations even today.

The Ottoman Empire met its final defeat in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, and Greece and Serbia divided the conquered territory between themselves. The new kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes eventually renamed itself the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1918, the Macedonian Byzantine Catholic Church was organized under the umbrella of the Bulgarian Catholic Church.

The modern Republic of Macedonia equates approximately to what was in the early 20th century called Vardar Macedonia, a province of the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. As World War II loomed in 1941, Vardar Macedonia allied itself with the Axis Powers. First under the persuasion of the Germans and then under direct commands, Macedonian authorities passed a series of increasingly restrictive anti-Semitic laws, forbidding Jews from engaging in any form of commerce, requiring all of them to move to the ghettos, and eventually deporting most of the Macedonian Jews, who would end in Polish concentration camps. After the end of the war, most of the few remaining Jews migrated to Israel.

In 1959, centuries-old conflicts within the Serbian Orthodox Church also came to rest when many of its members broke off to create the Macedonian Orthodox Church and restored the Archbishopric of Ohrid. Macedonia achieved independence from Yugoslavia and adopted a constitution in 1991.


Sovereignty belongs to the people, who receive representation in a unicameral parliament. The Constitution divides the government into separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and establishes a Constitutional Court to protect “the basic freedoms and rights of the individual and citizen.” Among these is the freedom of personal conviction, conscience, and thought (Art. 16), as well as the freedom of religious confession and the right to “express one’s faith freely and publicly, individually or with others” (Art. 19).

The Constitution also states that all citizens are equal in their rights regardless of their religious identification (Art. 9), prohibits religious discrimination (Art. 54), guarantees freedom of association and the right of all religious groups to establish educational and social institutions (Art. 19), and declares that no liberty can be restricted except by a legal court decision (Art. 12).

No definition of “religion” is made in the Constitution, but a definition for “church, religious community, or religious group appears in two statutes.” The Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups of 1997 states that religious groups are voluntarily organized, non-profit communities of believers of the same confession of faith, who belong to no other registered religious community. In slight contrast, the Law on the Legal Status of a Church, Religious Community and Religious Group of 2007 defines a religious group as a “voluntary community of physical personalities that exercise freedom of religion through beliefs,” united by a religion and identity reflected through the manifestations of those beliefs.

Macedonia is a secular state, and the Constitution guarantees full separation of church and state. It also requires equal treatment of all religions before the law and prohibits religious discrimination (Art. 9, 54). Government’s basic role with respect to religion is to enable mutual cooperation between the state and religious communities in “the spirit of dialogue and partnership”, (Law on Legal Status) and to ensure that no law infringes on the religious freedoms of individuals. The country’s legislation adopts international standards of religious freedom protections; that is, that freedom of belief or conscience may never be restricted, and that religious conduct may only be restricted to the extent necessary to promote compelling government interests such as public health, public safety, and protecting the rights and freedoms of others.

Macedonia is party to several international treaties that promulgate freedom of belief. It has signed the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which acknowledge the right of all individuals to freedom of conscience and religion, including the right to adopt or change religion. Macedonia is also a party to the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, by which it promises to promote an education system that fosters tolerance among all religious groups, and to respect the liberty of parents to choose religious education for their children. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government recognizes the right of children to believe as they want, balanced with the parents’ right to provide religious guidance. Finally, Macedonia guarantees the right of prisoners to exercise their religion under the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.


A.  General Scope of Protection

The Constitution and laws of Macedonia, enforced by international treaty obligations, protect the right to religious freedom of all individuals and communities regardless of race, national origin, gender, social status, or political affiliation. (Art. 110). Religious freedom is generally perceived as the freedom of belief, thought, and conscience that every citizen has individually or as part of a group, including the freedom of manifesting one’s religion in worship, teaching, observance, and practice.

B.      Status of Minors

In Macedonia, children become legal adults at eighteen years. The Convention on the Rights of the Child grants to minors the same broad right to religious freedom as the Constitution grants to adults, although the treaty balances this freedom with the right of parents to provide religious guidance for their children.

C.      Activities Protected

The law broadly protects every manifestation of religious belief that does not violate a codified government interest; that is, only laws necessary to maintaining public safety, health, morals, or order, and to preserving the rights and freedoms of other individuals, are allowed to limit the religious practices of groups or individuals. Otherwise, the law acknowledges the right of religious communities to organize their own bodies of management, hierarchy, and rules; to proselytize; and to generally manifest one’s religion in worship, practice, observance, and teaching.

The European Convention on Human Rights also guarantees the fundamental right of religious manifestation, as well as the freedom to change one’s religion.

Macedonian case law has further developed the concept of religious freedom. In Bektashi Community v. Macedonia the European Court of Human Rights found that the Macedonian government’s refusal to of the Community’s application for religious status was not an act of religious discrimination, since the government’s reason for rejecting the application was based on valid rules of nomenclature. Similarly, the Constitutional Court in Orthodox Archdiocese of Ohrid v. Macedonia held that the refusal of religious status for the new Archdiocese was not discriminatory, because the government’s intent was to prevent strife within the already established Orthodox church. On the other hand, the Court did find discrimination in Kotesky v. Macedonia, when the state denied privileges to the plaintiff unless he could show overwhelming, objective proof of his faith.

 D.     Limitations to Freedom of Religion or Belief.

There are no restrictions on the freedom of religious belief. Religious practice, as mentioned above, can only be limited by laws that are necessary to protect the public welfare and the freedoms of others.


Religious groups can obtain legal status with the state by registering either as a church, a religious community, or a religious group. The Law on Religious Communities fails to define the distinction between the three entities, and the Court has ruled that they are the same for all legal purposes. As of 2015, 30 religious groups enjoyed legal status in Macedonia.

While religious groups are not required to obtain official status in order to practice their beliefs, lack of status restricts many essential activities. Non-registered groups cannot own real property and cannot apply for building permits. In addition, the law recognizes as “religious servants” only those who work for registered churches or communities.

Under the Minister of Justice, the Skopje II Basic Court reviews applications for religious status. Approved applications are entered in the Single Court Register of Churches, Religious Communities and Religious Groups. The law allows consideration for religious status to any group that is a “voluntary group of physical personalities…that are united by religion and identity,” as reflected in religious services, prayer, and other manifestations of religion. Originally, the law allowed only groups of over 50 adult Macedonian citizens to register for legal status, but the Constitutional Court invalidated that requirement.

In order to be considered for legal status, a religious group’s application must set forth the “acts of establishment,” which include a name, title, and description of insignia for the church (each sufficiently distinct from those of other registered churches so as to prevent confusion); the church’s address within the Republic; the name of the applicant; manner of expression of religious affiliation; and a description of the church’s financial organization. The application must also include the minutes of the founding assembly, any acts regulating the church’s organization and activities, a description of the sources that the churches plans to use to teach its religious beliefs, the name of the person authorized to represent the church, and proof of citizenship of the authorized representative and the founders.

If a religious group’s application meets all of these requirements, the Court is required to approve the application and enter the group into the Single Court Register. In the case of a rejected application, a group may make an appeal to the court of second instance, and then to the Constitutional Court.

Although the Law on Religious Communities appears to facilitate legal recognition for any religious group willing to submit the paperwork, the reality is somewhat different. Politics supportive of the Macedonian Orthodox Church have repeatedly led the Court to reject the application of the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, an affiliate of the disfavored Serbian Orthodox Church. Several other minority religious groups have criticized the government of inconsistently implementing the rules of registration in a manner that indicates political favoritism. In addition, an official commentary on this law, issued by the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, points out that the provisions regarding a group’s eligibility to seek registration are ambiguous and afford too much discretion to the Court.


Religious freedom is a constitutional guarantee for all individuals and groups. The Law on Religious Communities provides various specific protections for religious practice, but also regulates some practices.

Firstly, the law grants to all churches, religious communities, and religious groups the right to organize and govern themselves as they see fit. The law also reminds the State that it can only limit religious expression by laws that are indispensable to the public welfare and to protecting the freedoms of others. Article 6 states that the government respects the identity of religious communities and religious associations, and Article 7 directs the government to create legal conditions in which religious groups can operate unhindered.

Specifically, the Law on Religious Communities protects religious education and the disposal of revenues. Religious activities may be carried out in any public or private premises as far as those activities do not violate public peace or order. Religious groups have the right to establish and operate religious schools, and the Law grants autonomy to all churches in managing their schools and dormitories. Additionally, the Law provides that churches are permitted to dispose of their revenues without government interference.

Despite the promise of autonomy, the law does place a few regulations on the above-mentioned activities. Religious schools are required to make internal data available to the State in order for the government to maintain oversight of the schools. In addition, the Law gives the state department of education an unspecified amount of influence over the curricula of religious institutions for the purpose of ensuring they comply with the laws of Macedonia.

The Law also requires organizers of religious prayer journeys to implement national health laws, requires religious groups to obtain building permits for all religious facilities, and directs institutionalized persons and members of the army or police forces to follow their institution’s rules as far as religious activities and visits from clergy.


Under the Constitution and the Law on Religious Communities, all registered religious communities have the right to operate institutions of faith-based education. Religious schools may offer a religious education to students or training for clergy and other religious servants. Church-operated schools, and their teachers and students, are considered equal before the law in every respect to other schools, teachers, and students.

The Law mandates some State oversight of religious schools. The Commission for Relations with Religious Communities and Groups is charged with reviewing the academic curricula of religious institutions, and the Ministry of Education is required to inspect the curricula to ensure that they follow the laws of Macedonia.

Otherwise, religious associations have a fair amount of autonomy in managing their affairs. They are allowed to hire foreign citizens as instructors, as long as those individuals meet the applicable foreign worker requirements; they are permitted to publish, import, and export all types of printed material and other media; and they are generally free to manage the affairs of their schools and student dormitories as they see fit.

The State also allows religious subjects to be taught as electives in public schools. Students over 15 may choose to enroll in religion classes, and students under 15 may do so with parental consent. The law directs the Ministry of Education to seek the advice of religious communities in developing curriculum for such classes.


The Law on Prevention and Protection Against Discrimination regulates the question of unequal treatment in the workplace. Discrimination is defined as “any unjustified legal or actual, direct or indirect differentiation” that excludes, limits, or gives priority to certain persons or groups on the grounds of religion or confession, gender, ethnic origin, social status, language, education, disability, marital status, or any other grounds.

Neither direct nor indirect discrimination on the basis of religion is permitted. However, the Law sets forth a list of activities that constitute legal differentiation rather than unlawful discrimination. These include different treatment on the basis of a job applicant’s religion, when the person’s religion is a genuine and determinative requirement for the position; the actions of a religious employer that accord with the doctrine or objectives of the religion and result in different treatment; and the actions of religious minority groups in taking measures to protect their ethno-religious identity.


Religious organizations are free to collect donations, tithes, and other membership fees. The Law on Legal Status of Religious Communities provides that churches may derive revenues from “self-financing, private philanthropy, foreign donations, and other forms of financing,” and allows churches to “autonomously dispose of their acquired revenues” in accordance with national laws. It also provides that the financing and expenditures of religious organizations are subject to legislation governing nonprofit and public interest organizations.

Legislation regulating the tax obligations of religious groups are somewhat ambiguous, and provide fewer exemptions than do the laws of other Eastern European countries. The Law on Citizens’ Associations and Foundations allows associations and foundations to claim all tax exemptions provided under the tax laws, but those exemptions are in reality quite narrow. The Law on Profit Tax contains no express exemptions for NGOs or religious groups. It does, however, state that a legal entity’s income from a fund assigned for performance of its activities does not figure into calculations of the entity’s profit tax. This provision is unclear, but is currently understood to exclude donations and membership fees from tax requirements. The law generally does not permit individuals to deduct taxes for their contributions to charity.

Macedonia’s laws treat all investment income as subject to taxes, including the investment income of religious groups. Nonprofit organizations are allowed to receive a passive investment income without having to form a separate business subsidiary, but they are still taxed at the same rate as for-profit entities.

Tax exemptions are available for certain types of property and gifts. The Law on Property Taxes exempts buildings and lands that are either owned by religious communities, used for religious rituals, or used as a home for clergy. Such real property is taxable if put to use for any economic purpose, including leases. Religious communities may claim exemptions from the Inheritance and Gift Tax for gifts or donations received in the form of movable, real property, and monies.

The Constitution mandates the complete separation of church and state. However, the Ministry of Culture has occasionally provided construction funds for the Macedonian Orthodox Church and other religious groups, which has given rise to protests by student associations and nongovernmental organizations.


Under the Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities, residents of orphanages, senior citizens’ homes, hospitals, penitentiaries, and similar institutions can freely practice their religion in accordance with the rules of the institution. They are also permitted to receive visits by religious authorities for the performance of religious services.

Members of the army and police forces also hold the right to religious exercise within the parameters set by their respective institutions. The Law on Defense allows military conscripts to be released from participation in military exercises if the conscript is designated to perform religious services as a clergyman at the same time the exercises are being held. It also allows military conscripts with religious objections to carrying weapons to serve their conscription in settings that do not require weapons.


The State only recognizes civil marriages. Religious groups may perform weddings, but couples must also take out a marriage license with the marriage registry in order for their relationship to receive legal recognition. The Law on the Family permits marriages between two people of opposite genders who voluntarily wish to enter the relationship, and forbids marriages between first cousins and other close relatives. Almost all marriages take place within ethnic and religious communities.

The Law recognizes annulments resulting from a serious obstacle to the marriage, and divorces by mutual consent and for other reasons. Adoptions are overseen by the Center for Social Work.

Despite the constitutional and legal guarantees of gender equality, strong patriarchal values undergird Macedonian society and create many obstacles toward realizing actual equality. Men of all ethnic groups, especially the Muslim communities, are much more present in the workplace and in leadership positions. Reports on the 2006 gender equality law reveal that no resources were allocated to its implementation, resulting in little progress toward reducing discrimination.


The penal code of Macedonia takes several measures to protect religious freedoms and sensitivities and to prevent crimes motivated by religious bias.

It is an offense to take away or limit the constitutional and legal rights of others based on religious differences, or to give special favors to some individuals with the same motivation. These offenses are punishable by up to three years imprisonment, or up to six years if the offense was carried out by a government official while performing his duty. It is also a crime to use technology to make threats against another because of the other’s religious background.

There is no crime for blasphemy or hate speech. However, inciting religious discord by the ridicule or mistreatment of religious symbols or monuments is a punishable offense, as is the unwarranted disruption of religious services.

The Law seeks to prevent hate crimes by penalizing those who distribute material that advocates discrimination or violence against others based on their religious beliefs. Finally, the penal code recognizes various war crimes as committed against religious institutions or persons, or motivated by religious bias.


Constitution of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Law on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Communities, and Religious Groups
Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups
Criminal Code of the Republic of Macedonia
Law on Property Taxes
Law on Prevention and Protection Against Discrimination
Law on Defense
Law on the Family
Law on Registers of Births, Marriages, and Deaths

Bektashi Community v. Macedonia (2014), European Court of Human Rights
Orthodox Archdiocese of Ohrid v. Macedonia ( ), Constitutional Court
Kotesky v. Macedonia (2006), European Court of Human Rights
Constitutional Court decision on discrimination and conscientious objection (2002)

LiteratureBook of Acts of the Apostles, New  Testament
Kyrtatas, Dmitri. Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon: Studies in the Archaeology and History of Macedon, 650 BS-300 AD, “Early Christianity in Macedonia.” 2011.
Ferrari, Silvio, Durham, W. Cole, Sewell, Elizabeth. Law and Religion in Post-Communist Europe. 2003.
European Commission. “Developing Anti-Discrimination Law in Europe.” Oct. 2013.
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. “Survey of Tax Laws Affecting NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe.” 2002.

Other Resources
Census of Population, Households, and Dwellings 2002, Book IX
Dept. of State Religious Freedom Report: Macedonia
Comments on Draft Law of the Republic of Macedonia “Law on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Communities, and Religious Groups.” OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or Belief.