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The Network for Protection against Discrimination strongly condemns the decision of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia to allocate funds to the Orthodox Theological Faculty “St. Kliment Ohridski ”- Skopje and the Faculty of Islamic Sciences – Skopje. We consider the decision to be discriminatory because it allocates public money to religious communities, instead of prosecuting them for the threats to endanger public health. The question is why funds are allocated to these two higher education institutions after the threats, instead of funds being intended to take preventive measures against the epidemic with COVID-19 in substandard settlements and residences in RN Macedonia, which poses a serious risk and threat for the health of all citizens in our country.

At the 38th session of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia, held on 8 April 2020, a decision was made by which the Orthodox Theological Faculty “St. Kliment Ohridski ”- Skopje is awarded 4,500,000 denars from the budget of RN Macedonia for settling the costs for the realization of student programs for 2020. With the same decision, the Faculty of Islamic Sciences – Skopje is awarded 3,000,000 denars from the budget of RN Macedonia for settling the costs for the realization of student programs for 2020[1]. The decision comes just two days after the threat from the head of the Islamic Religious Community, Sulejman Rexhepi, who said that if the IRC did not receive state aid, it would withdraw the calls for worshipers not to visit religious facilities during the pandemic; and the statement of the Metropolitan of the Diocese of Debar and Kičevo, Timotej, that the MOC is seriously affected by the crisis because half of the revenues of the monasteries and churches of the MOC were collected during the Easter holiday.

The justification of this decision of the Government is scandalous and manipulative, explaining that the allocation of these funds to the indicated faculties was voted at the 9th session of the Government held on 16 February 2020. We would like to inform the public that the Government’s decision from the 9th session held on 16 February 2020 envisages the approval of funds at the indicated faculties to ensure continuity of work and implementation of student programs in the period after the announcement of the elections. This decision was made at a time when the indicated faculties were teaching and working smoothly. At its 17th session on 13 March 2020, the Government adopted a decision on measures to prevent and spread the COVID-19 Coronavirus, which, among other things, prohibits the teaching process in higher education institutions and public scientific institutions.

The country is in serious health and economic crisis during which: basic human rights such as free movement, privacy, the right to protest and education are being hindered; thousands lost their jobs or face other types of labour rights violations; the poorest are at risk for their health and survival because they have neither the opportunity nor the necessities to protect themselves; citizens are expected to respect and accept the most restrictive measures in modern history and to trust the government; we face a real risk of further impoverishment of the population and generation of all other consequences of poverty such as exclusion, violence, impaired health; associations and citizens are actively seeking measures to help and support the poorest, who are disproportionately more affected by the crisis and whose health and lives are at risk. In these conditions, the Government decides to allocate 120,000 Euros to the religious communities, under the guise of the needs of their faculties, without a justified reason and without transparent informing the public about the purpose of these funds.

Discrimination is most evident in the fact that the public is witnessing the sanctioning of citizens who do not comply with the measures, and at the same time, there is the rewarding of religious leaders who threaten not to comply with the measures. Several associations have already called for urgent measures to protect, assist and support the most vulnerable citizens of Šuto Orizari who live in substandard conditions, without running water, sewerage and electricity to avoid the uncontrolled spread of the virus and social support to the poorest. Apart from Šuto Orizari, this serious problem and cruel reality have been detected in many municipalities on the territory of RNM where there are settlements with improvised and temporary dwellings.

These requirements are based on real needs and health risks for the population, but there is still no answer to them. This prioritization of spending state money during a pandemic and allocating such high amounts of funds to educational institutions that are not currently operating and do not carry out any activities is non-domestic and jeopardizes the trust that the government has enjoyed so far.

This action, in addition to being discriminatory, non-transparent and non-domestic, overshadows the rule of law in the country. We ask the government, is there no way to control the behaviour of religious leaders or do the laws not apply to them? Is it permissible for religious leaders to extort budget money through blackmail and threats? Isn’t it better to reallocate those 120,000 Euros to protect and help the poorest and most vulnerable citizens from the crisis to prevent the emergence of new cases of people infected with COVID-19? We warn that such action poses a risk to public health, as double standards demotivate citizens to respect the measures and give rise mistrust. If there are justified reasons for financial assistance to religious communities, they must be publicly explained, and the public must have access to data on financial operations, employment status and workers’ rights in religious communities, and therefore assess whether additional (un)necessary support in the context of the crisis is needed.

We urge the prosecution to act urgently and to prosecute religious leaders who do not respect the measures, call for and threaten to disrespect them. We ask the Government to reconsider this decision, to truthfully and transparently inform the citizens and to respond positively to all the requests of the associations that refer to the taking of measures for urgent protection and support of the poorest.

15 April, Skopje

[1] This decision was published in the Official Gazette of the Republic of North Macedonia No. 95 of 8 April 2010, and it entered into force on the day of its publication in the Official Gazette.