An Orthodox Christian church famed for its valuable icons was set alight in southern Macedonia overnight, authorities said Tuesday, as religious tension between Christians and minority Muslims grew over a carnival in which men dressed as women in burqas and mocked the Quran.
Firefighters extinguished the fire late Monday in the two century-old Sveti Nikola church, in the village of Labunista near the town of Struga. The church's roof was partly destroyed but its icons were not damaged, the fire service said.
Hours before the fire, Muslim leaders had appealed for calm among community members.
The Jan. 13 Vevcani festival prompted angry, sometimes violent demonstrations by Muslims, who are nearly all ethnic Albanian and make up 33 percent of the country's 2.1 million population and accuse the majority of stoking hatred.
Ethnic tension has been simmering in this small Balkan country since the end of an armed rebellion in 2001, when ethnic Albanian rebels fought government forces for about eight months, seeking greater rights for their community. The conflict left 80 people dead, and ended with the intervention of NATO peacekeepers.
The Vevcani carnival, a traditional festival said to have been held for some 1,400 years, attracts thousands of visitors. Local residents traditionally wear elaborate, frequently sarcastic masks, with some of the most common costumes including devils and demons.
The perceived mockery of the Quran and the burqa costumes caused outrage. On Saturday, protesters attacked an inter-city bus heading from Struga to Vevcani, throwing rocks at the vehicle. They also defaced a Macedonian flag outside Struga's municipal building, replacing it with a green flag representing Islam. On the same day, perpetrators attacked a church in the nearby village of Labunista, destroying a 4-meter (13-feet) cross.
Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov and the leaders of the Orthodox Christian and Muslim communities condemned the incidents and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
The three "expressed confidence that the tradition of living together for centuries in Macedonia remains the value ... for all people of Macedonia," Ivanov's office said in a statement.
The European Union's mission in Macedonia also called for cooperation among the religious communities.
Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkans have traditionally been secular. But conservative Islamic schools, especially an ultra-conservative form of the religion known as Wahhabism, have taken a foothold in the years following the brief 2001 uprising.
Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia.