SKOPJE (B92) - The Macedonian Appellate Court confirmed the first instance ruling against Archbishop of Ohrid and Metropolitan of Skopje Jovan Vraniskovski.
He was sentenced to three years of imprisonment on charges for embezzlement of EUR 250,000.
The Appellate Court also confirmed the probation for 18 followers of Archbishop Jovan, including his mother and sister, on charges of aiding the embezzlement, Macedonian media reported on Thursday.
The second instance court previously denied the appeal by Metropolitan Jovan as unfounded and found him guilty of embezzlement of funds which he used to purchase land in Ohrid during his mandate as the bishop of the non-recognised Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC).
Reports of Macedonian media state that the decision of the Appellate Court is crucial for further talks with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) on canonical recognition of MPC.
Archbishop Jovan of Ohrid was sentenced in Skopje on July 2, 2013 to three years of imprisonment and he appealed the decision in November.
In keeping with the ruling of the Skopje Criminal Court, the authorities seized MKD 4.9 million from the bank account of the Association for enhancement of civil and religious freedoms in the village of Nizepolje near Bitola to the benefit of the canonically non-recognised MOC as the damaged party.
Archbishop Jovan said in the appeal that the ruling is discriminatory and was adopted for political reasons, adding that the verdict is also unclear and is not backed by a single piece of tangible evidence.
The appeal Vraniskovski filed to the Skopje Appellate Court states that the Orthodox Archdiocese of Ohrid is being persecuted by the (Macedonian) authorities in various ways even though 12 years have passed since its establishment, adding that the request of the Archdiocese to be entered in court registers, whereby it would become a legitimate religious organisation, has been denied to this day.
Since 2003, Macedonian authorities have arrested Archbishop Jovan Vraniskovski six times, on different charges, including public disorder when he tried to conduct a baptism ceremony in a church the MPC sees as its own.
He has also been charged with "inciting ethnic and religious hatred" for having "slandered the MPC" and has spent a total of almost 18 months in prison. The Veles Basic Court then sentenced him to 2.5 years of imprisonment for alleged tax evasion in the period during his mandate as the MPC bishop.
He was last arrested on December 12, 2011, upon entering Macedonia from Greece, on charges of embezzlement of EUR 250,000.
He returned to the country to request a retrial, but was arrested and taken to the Idrizovo prison near Skopje, where he is still being kept in, as his defence team says, very difficult conditions.
The MPC is canonically non-recognized, and the SPC considers it schismatic since it declared autocephaly unilaterally in 1967.
The MPC has defrocked Bishop Jovan and the SPC has appointed him as Serbian exarch in Macedonia.
The SPC believes Archbishop Jovan is a victim of rigged political trials because of his being against the schism, while Amnesty International and Freedom House have said that he is a prisoner of conscience.