Disinformation fuels church protest against gender equality in North Macedonia

Church protest in Skopje, North Macedonia on June 29, 2023. Photo by Bojan Blaževski/Meta.mk, used with permission.a

Church protest in Skopje, North Macedonia on June 29, 2023. Photo by Bojan Blaževski/Meta.mk, used with permission.

This story was produced by Truthmeter.mk as part of the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.

On June 29, the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archdiocese of Ohrid (MOC-AO) organized a large protest in Skopje against the draft laws on gender equality and civil registration, drawing several thousand supporters of conservative political parties to the capital of North Macedonia. The iconography of the protest included religious symbols, old Macedonian flags favored by nationalist circles — and, notably, Russian flags — as reported by the News Agency Meta.mk.

The next day, in an interview with TV24 the president of North Macedonia said that domestic and allied security services warned him about cooperation between some MOC-AO bishops and Kremlin secret services.

Representatives of the Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestant Church also attended the protest. Its demands were also supported by the Islamic Community, which didn't send representatives at the event.

Before the protest, the MOC-AO and right wing circles waged a disinformation campaign to mobilize support against upcoming legislative changes that would advance women’s rights and the rights of transgender people.

Fact-checking service Truthmeter.mk noted that MOC-AO Bishop Jakov of Stobi, who served as spokesperson for the campaign, used political spin and inflammatory provocative language to direct anger against civil society organizations, using rhetoric reminiscent of the 2016 Putin-style witch-hunt against NGOs. He deemed them foreign mercenaries and blamed them for “persecutions and lynching” against the church, and attempting to “shackle our society in a kind of totalitarianism under the guise of fighting for human rights.”

In the name of the church, Bishop Jakob  demanded protection from the new laws for “the 99 percent of the people endangered by them” and for whom the laws were unacceptable.

That rhetoric culminated at the protest in the speech by Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia Stefan, the head of MOC-AO, who stressed that the “laws were a disappointment,” while the church “will defend the children (and women) from unacceptable and offensive ideologies” that “legitimize violence against women” who “do not want such fake equality and fake rights.”

Zoran Jovanovski, who presents himself as an “intellectual, political analyst & politician,” and is a member of the “pro-Russian lobby in VMRO-DPMNE” (right) and members of political party Rodina Makedonija (on the left), with a joined old Macedonian and a Russian flag at the church protest in Skopje on June 29, 2023. Photo by Bojan Blaževski/Meta.mk, used with permission.

Minister of Labor and Social Policy Jovana Trenčevska, the official responsible for the two controversial laws, the Law on Gender Equality and the Law on Civil Registry, officially denied some of the disinformation campaign claims, in particular the urgency narrative that their adoption is imminent, while in fact they have not been on the government and parliament's agenda at the moment.

She noted that, contrary to MOC-AO statements, the aim of the Law on Gender Equality is to improve the role of women in society.  The amendments to the Law on Civil Registry would only enable transgender persons to change the data entry on their sex in the Civil Registry, and respective ID documents.

Trenčevska's statement included support for the right of anyone in the country to organize a protest against government policies. Her explanation also referred to attempts to confusion about the gender terminology, presenting it as something new and artificially imposed by the supposedly evil West.

Родовата еднаквост не е исто што и половата еднаквост. Родовата еднаквост, не е исто што и родов идентитет. Родот и полот се дефинирани согласно постојната регулатива во државата и согласно она што државата си го превзела како обврска од Истанбулската конвенција.

[The term] gender equality is not the same as equality of the sexes. Gender equality doesn't equal gender identity. They are defined in compliance with the current legal regulations of the country and according to the obligations stemming from the Istanbul Convention.

She noted that the definitions in the Draft Law on Gender Equality and the previously amended Law on Protection and Prevention of Violence against Women are identical, which prevents legal insecurity in the country.

In her column titled “Dear MOC, we apologize for existing” human rights activist Irena Cvetkovikj also accused the MOC-AO of spreading disinformation about the laws, and also warned that such rhetoric can incite violence.

Чувствувам длабока разочараност, но и страв поради неодговорното однесување на верските лидери придружени од некои политичари и антиродовите организации.

I feel deep disappointment, but also fear due to the irresponsible behavior of the religious leaders, accompanied by some politicians and anti-gender organizations.

Protest organizers’ Kremlin connections

The Macedonian branch of the Russian motorcycle club Night Wolves also attended the protest. Several weeks earlier, on June 12, they also attended the “Russia Day” reception by Russian Embassy in Skopje, used to promote disinformation narratives justifying Russia's aggression on Ukraine.

In spite of the fact that Russia put North Macedonia on its blacklist of “hostile countries” in March 2022, top Macedonian clergy dignitaries, including Bishop Petar, one of the seven members of the MOC-OA highest governing body, the Synod, also attended the embassy event.

In April, during the Easter Holiday, he incited outrage by declaring gender equality is “blasphemous” and a “poisonous and perverted ideology” that threatens society. Similar condemnations of gender equality, feminism, divorced women and single mothers were issued by Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a key religious institution in the Balkans considered close to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Moreover, this January, MOC-AO leadership hosted a “friendly” visit of Metropolitan Anthony, ROC primate in charge of its international relations. MOC-OA didn't reveal the content of the talks, while claiming the official purpose of the visit was congratulations on Archbishop Stefan's name day.

Macedonian security expert Professor Marjan Gjurovski warned that Metropolitan Antony's visit could “cause negative implications because it's part of Russian hybrid threat operation.”

The ROC serves as one of the main conduits of anti-gender equality and anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda narratives that present the Kremlin regime as defender of “traditional family values” that are supposedly endangered by the “depraved” West and the EU.

Right-wing political parties supported the protest

Тhe largest right-wing political party VMRO-DPMNE supported the protest. It allegedly organized several dozen buses to ferry participants from other cities to boost the number of attendants. The party leader didn't attend, but said he would have, if not for a prior engagement.

This was in contrast to their previous expressed support for gender equality legislation, which included the ratification of the Istanbul Convention which was decried as problematic at the protest. Several VMRO-DPMNE MPs who voted to adopt the Law on Gender Equality at a parliamentary session on March 8, protested against it on June 29.

Members of pro-Kremlin political party Rodina Makedonija with a banner “Keep your hands off our children!” Photo by Bojan Blazevski/Meta.mk, used with permission.

Openly pro-Kremlin fringe political party Rodina Makedonija also participated in the church protest. It has been engaged in spreading antivaxxer disinformation and chemtrail conspiracy theories. It runs a “Coalition for Protection of Children,” consisting of 31 small political parties and NGOs, supported by the U.S. fundamentalist Christian lobbying organization Family Watch. Their disinformation campaigns include spreading panic about pro-LGBTQ+ indoctrination in schools, while at the protest they carried a banner reading “Keep your hands off our children.”

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