Bitola, in southern Macedonia, is a historic and remarkable town. Founded by Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) on a site commanding a major east-west trade route across the southern Balkans, Bitola rapidly rose to prominence in the Greek and later Roman Worlds.
Bitola remained important throughout the Middle Ages, not least as a centre of the Church. The city's ancient Greek name, Monastir, indicates the place of a major monastery – sufficiently important to maintain the name through 500 years of Muslim Turkish occupation. Bitola is the Slavic equivalent of Monastir.
Bitola is a cosmopolitan city, with Macedonian and Albanian majorities, but smaller numbers of Bulgarians and Greeks. The third major community are the Roma (gypsies).
The Roma are believed to have originated in India, where the Banjara people maintain many of the same customs. The Roma migrated to Iran and the Byzantine Empire in the wake of a Muslim invasion, and their westward movement brought them to the Balkans following the Ottoman invasion in the 14th century. Some continued to move west, even to the UK, but the Balkans are still home to large numbers.
There are perhaps 80,000 Roma in Macedonia with 3,000 in Bitola. Most are no longer nomadic – indeed Macedonia is home to the largest communities of settled gypsies in the world. At first they were welcomed as entertainers and craftsmen, but increasingly Roma have been marginalised and driven into isolation and great poverty.
The Balkan Roma maintain many traditional characteristics of Romanipen, the ancient culture. There is a complex system of honour, which sadly leads to many centuries-old feuds. Customs prescribe family relationships, including arranged marriages, dowries, and often bride kidnapping.
The ancient culture is under great threat, especially amongst the young. Alcoholism, drug-abuse and crime are widespread, including involvement in people-trafficking.
The Macedonian Roma are nominally Muslim, but in reality follow more ancient religious practices. However, in recent decades, the Balkans has seen a major turning to Christ amongst the Roma, especially in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. In the wider region, up to 100,000 Roma have become Christians (perhaps 50% of the total Roma population). In Macedonia, progress has been slower, but there are now around 10 Roma congregations meeting in the country. Some, as in Prilep, are around 100 strong, but most are smaller.
However, all are fast-growing, including the congregation in Bitola, pastured by the very gifted Tefik Musoski. This congregation presently has around 40 members, and is making a real impact on the local Roma population.
Their need is for a new building, adequate for their needs, and for expansion, which is sufficiently prestigious to attract others to come. It should also be a building which will enhance the view of Roma Christians in the eyes of the general population.
A central site has been identified at a major crossroads. The existing very old houses have been demolished and initial building work has been done. At the time of writing, work is needed to complete the attic and roof, the remaining brickwork and render, door & windows, gutters, water and electricity installation.
It will then be necessary to provide internal coverings and decoration and equip the church hall, pastor’s offices, Sunday school rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, store areas, apartment for the pastor and his family and accommodation for visitors, including visiting teams.
On completion, this will be a well-built and extremely useful facility for the Roma community in Bitola.
Our partners, Macedonian Mission to the Balkans (part of the Evangelical Church of Macedonia) are very well used to church construction, having completed numerous new churches in recent years, and with at least two others underway right now.
We need to raise £65,000 to complete the Bitola Roma Church. Please help.