Did the Macedonian Orthodox Church Really Start a ‘Crusade’ Against a UNESCO-Protected World-Heritage Custom?

Photo of ‘mărţişor/martinki /mártenitsa/martis,’ traditional amulets used in the Balkans via pxhere. The image is released free of copyright under CC0 Public Domain license.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church's attempt to preach against wearing traditional white and red good luck charms seems to had backfired.

As March 1, 2018 approached, people in the Balkans geared up to celebrate the Grandma March Day, a Balkan tradition of exchanging handmade amulets made of red and white wool. This year was special because just a few months ago, UNESCO protected the Balkan Grandma March Day custom as intangible cultural heritage.

The hand-made amulets are known by many names: martinki (Мартинки in Macedonia), mártenitsa (Мартеница in Bulgaria), mărţişor (in Romania and Moldova), and martis (Μάρτης in Greece). The term for ‘Grandma March’ in Slavic languages is ‘Baba Marta,’ and the following tweet is one of many enthusiastic examples:

The custom and the new UNESCO status continued to serve as the basis for cross-border cooperation. In Japan, for instance, embassies of Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Moldova organized a joint event a few days prior, introducing both the wool amulets and other aspects of the cultural heritage of these countries:

However, back in the Republic of Macedonia, the custom became the subject of a new controversy when the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC) issued its annual announcement warning its believers on the use of amulets. Some media focused on one particularly negative aspect of the announcement, with sensationalist titles such as “MOC: Wearing ‘Martinka’ is a Superstitious and Magic, and therefore a Demonic Custom:

Секој оној што на својата рака ќе стави или на својата облека ќе закачи таканаречена ‘мартинка’ (нешто како нараквица направена од црвен и бел конец) за здравје и среќа, да знае дека од тој момент (свесно или несвесно) се откажал од Бог, односно од Православната Вера и Црква, и не може да учествува во нејзините Свети Тајни. Не може истовремено да веруваме и во Бог и во ‘мартинка’. Верата и суеверието немаат ништо заедничко, исто како што и Бог нема ништо заедничко со ѓаволот. А на два господари не можеме да им служиме, или ќе Му служиме на Бог или на ѓаволот – па секој слободно нека избере кому ќе му служи. И секое друго суеверие, спротивно на православната вера, не е од Бога.

Any person who would put on their hand or clothes the so called ‘martinka’ (a kind of bracelet made of red and white wool thread) for health or luck, must know that from that moment (consciously or unconsciously) renounced God, the Orthodox Faith and Church, and can't take part in its holy sacraments. One cannot at the same time believe in God and in the ‘martinka.’ Faith and superstition have nothing in common, just like God has nothing in common with the Devil. One cannot serve two masters, one can either serve God or the Devil – so anyone can freely choose whom to serve. Any other superstition, contrary to the Orthodox Faith, is not godly.

Similar announcements were issued during previous years, resulting in waves of defiant and ironic social media posts:

If you put martinkas you will directly inhibit the resurrection of the Macedonian Empire, so think hard about what you'll do…

If Martinka is a sin now, then MOC should update their list, it's becoming too extensive. I've got too much of them on my soul now.

One such tweet mocked the custom of some priests to lounge in luxury, such as by wearing expensive jewelry and watches, which has been the subject of criticism in other countries with Orthodox Churches, such as Russia:

MOC: “We condemn wearing martinkas as pagan custom…”
Me: …

This year, linking to an article with similar contents from a MOC-related religious website named “Pokajanie” (meaning “Repentance”), cultural heritage activist Vasilka Dimitrovska also expressed a widespread discontent with the meddling of some church figures in politics:

Thanks to MOC for the free marketing we didn't even order. If they want to complain, why don't they go visit UNESCO. By the way they can also solve the name issue negotiations. While going there, they should educate themselves on the differences between religion and tradition recognized as world cultural heritage.

In fact, the original MOC announcement was not unconditional and written in much milder language:

Значи, ако мартинката се носи неколку денови или една недела, дали како негување на стара традиција, дали како мода, дали во чест на нашите предци, дали како заедничко балканско културно наследство, дали заради забава или од некоја друга причина, тогаш не е во спротивност на Црковното учење.

Но, ако носењето мартинка стане суеверен и магиски, а со тоа и демонски обичај, тогаш таквото поведение не е во согласност со учењето на Црквата. Секако, секој е слободен да го послуша, или не, учењето на Црквата, и е одговорен за одлуките што ги носи.

So wearing a martinka for a few days or a week, either to nurture an ancient tradition, or out of fashion, or to honor our ancestors or the common Balkan cultural heritage, for fun or some other reason, is not contrary to the teaching of the Church.

However, if wearing a martinka is with the purpose of superstition and magic, it is therefore demonic custom, which is not compliant with the teachings of the Church. Of course, any person has the liberty to obey, or not, the teachings of the Church, and bears responsibility for one's own decision.

Even though Macedonian citizens regularly score high on the index of religiosity, they increasingly resent mixing religion with nationalism, including support by clergy for the former ruling political party, and their participation in rallies related to the Macedonia name issue.

In either harsh or mild form, the MOC announcement indeed seems to have had opposite effect and increased the visibility of the ‘martinka’ custom. There were numerous media items promoting the old custom now protected by UNESCO, including the publication of a book for kids about them in the Macedonian, Albanian and English language.

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