It's been a week since we returned from our Macedonia tour. We visited Bitola, Ohrid, Gevgelia, Stoyakovo, Strumica and Koleshino. Our main stop was Ohrid, the old Bulgarian capital during the reign of king Samuil from 997 то 1014. Оn the way to it and from it we visited some friends and thus saw more of this beautiful land.
I had been already a few times to Macedonia, mainly to Balkan staff consultations. Last year I went to a mission in the capital, Skopje, and on the way met a very prominent Macedonian Bulgarian, Lyupcho Kurtelov. He invited me to visit him in Ohrid after my 'business trip'. Thus I saw the gorgeous city for the first time. Before leaving Lyupcho invited me to come again, this time with my family. So, from 1 to 7 September the dream came true.
The last 5 or so years I have read a lot about the so called "Macedonian question". I see the bitterness and hopelessness of a people who have been forced to deny their true identity and accept a new one. Present day Macedonians have become used to and have accepted this new identity to the point when they look with resentment to any hint that perhaps their history has been somewhat different to what they have studied in their history textbooks at school.
For many Bulgaria and Bulgarians are the archi-enemy. No wonder, since the Yugoslavian authorities used every way possible to instill in the minds of people that they have nothing to do with Bulgaria: starting with the genocide and the threats against those who venture to claim Bulgarian identity after 1919, the destruction of the railway, built by the Bulgarian authorities and ready to connect both countries, the big wall of wire erected at the border; going through the changed Cyrillic alphabet to look more like the Serbian one, the introduction of thousands of Serbian words in the lexical system of the language, the new 'redaction' of the history studied at school and university, the erasing of all Bulgarian suffixes and names from the church icons, the graves and other artefacts, the deliberate negligence of Bulgarian officers and soldiers graveyards after WW2, and the production of 'historical' films portraying Bulgarians as cruel and cunning fashists; and coming to the present day deliberate negative coverage of what happens in Bulgaria by the pro-Serbian media.
In his book "Macedonia - an Experienced Destiny" Hristo Ognyanov explains with a deep foresight why people in Macedonia feel the way they feel today. Being a Macedonian Bulgarian from Ohrid himself, he depicts the stormy period from the Balkan War in 1912 to the fall of communism in 1991. All the trials, suffering, torturing, threats, change of authorities and identities, aggressive propagandas... With deep sensitivity Ognyanov shows that it is not just Yugoslavian (royal or Tito's) authorities who are to be blamed; the Bulgarian government has also made lots of mistakes regarding Macedonia - the lack of strategic and coordinated policy regarding Macedonia, the passive looking at the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie uprising by the Bulgarian authorities, the Bulgarian king and generals' mistakes during the WW1, the Bulgarian communists' collaboration with Tito's anti-Bulgarian policy in forcing the inhabitants of the Pirin region admit they are "Macedonians" and thus 'creating' a Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, the passive policy of Bulgaria after 1990, etc.
The fact is, present day Macedonians, especially those under 50 years of age, have developed a new identity. They speak a language that is sometimes hard to understand by Bulgarians, they think differently, they listen to different music, watch different films, even eat somewhat different food (although different regions in Bulgaria also differ in the last respect). Most imporntantly, they have lived in a different country for almost 100 years. True, 100 years are nothing compared to the more than 1000 years we have lived in one kingdom and within the same borders. Yet, it is more than enough to explain the precipice between our peoples today.
So, what can be done in this situation, so that the people on both sides of Struma could rediscover the other and see our common roots? First, ideally, we should forget the 'hatred rhetorics' we are using now in defending our positions. Second, both governments should commit themselves to building a better infrastucture and open the borders for goods, people and ideas.
Of course, another legitimate question is, is this important? Why let history lie in oblivion? After all, what matters most is our identity in Christ (are with with him or not) and not so much our national identity.
I believe that who you are in Christ is more important than what language you speak. Still, not knowing the past can hinder us from better knowing who we are and can help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Besides, saying you don't care about your national and personal history is like saying you don't care about your own forefathers in a culture which treasures so much traditions and knowledge about history. And also we must ask ourselves the questions, how will this affect our witness as Christians? Even now we are already stigmatized as 'national traytors', being evangelical (and not mainstream Easter Orthodox) Christians. And finally, knowing the past can help us love our people even more (I have personally experienced this).
Because of all these reasons, it seems to me that it is important for us as Christians to know our history. It is important for both Macedonians and Bulgarians do know who they are. But most importantly, they should first know who they are in Christ: that they are created in God's image and likeness, for good deeds and His glory. Unfortunately, the present reality shows that the alienation between the people on both sides of the border is growing bigger, exactly because we don't start from the right thing: namely, bringing the good news to the people.
Of course, telling the truth about Macedonian history is important. But it won't be heard before people hear the bigger Truth of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, and are invited to share in His heavenly kingdom.