Tetovo — Open displays of faith among Macedonia’s rival Christian and Muslim youths are stoking religious tensions that have smouldered since the fall of communist Yugoslavia.
The collapse of the communist federation in the early 1990s saw a revival of interest in religion among Macedonia’s mainly Slavic Orthodox Christians and predominantly Sunni Islam ethnic Albanians.
Nowadays, Christian youths openly attend church services, fast and wear crosses, while Muslim girls are donning headscarves at schools even though the custom is outlawed.
The use of religious symbols is becoming more obvious at schools, notably in the capital Skopje and the western town of Tetovo, an ethnic Albanian stronghold.
The issue came to a head early in 2009, when a Tetovo school principal, Ljatif Ismaili, was sacked after banning a girl from entering class with a headscarf several times.
"At high school, other students found it strange at the beginning, but later got used to it," says Shpresa, an ethnic Albanian student from Bogovinje village near Tetovo. "I will wear it until I get married, and if my husband tells me to take it off, I will do so.”
Macedonia has long been dogged by ethnic tensions related to its Albanian minority, who make up most of the country’s Muslim population — which represents about 30 percent of the country’s 2.2 million residents. The others are Turks, Roma and Macedonian Muslims known as Torbeses.
In 2001, an ethnic Albanian rebellion brought Macedonia to the edge of civil war. The seven-month uprising was put to an end with the internationally-brokered peace accord that brought more rights to the ethnic Albanian community.
Education Minister Pero Stojanovski admits the issue of headscarves in schools is "very sensitive.”
"In the past few years, we have seen ethnic intolerance in some schools, but we also have schools which are an excellent example of multi-ethnic life," Stojanovski tells AFP. "The law clearly states any religious activity is prohibited in schools, and that is why we have separated religious education from religious activities.”
But Stojanovski stresses "rules of conduct" should not be interpreted as "discrimination.”
Namik Xhaferi of Tetovo’s Islamic community says the cross is a religious symbol, while headscarves are not only that, but also a part of expressing respect for Islam.
"No-one should exclude young women of Islamic faith (from schools) because of that," he insists.
The problem first emerged soon after Macedonia’s independence in 1991, when a Muslim girl attended school with her head covered for the first time.
It resurfaced when a law on religion at school entered into force in September 2008, sparking a vivid debate before the Supreme Court declared wearing headscarves to class is unconstitutional.
But the public attorney’s office says "students have constitutional and legal rights for freedom of religious expression," according to spokeswoman Uranija Pirovska.
In the absence of proper monitoring, however, schools have imposed their own regulations, making the issue even more complicated.
It is estimated that up to three percent of female students wear headscarves or other Islamic apparel at high schools and universities.
In Tetovo’s Medical High School with around 2,600 students including ethnic Albanians and Turks, classes are held in all three languages and problems have so far been avoided.
"Our school has voted in a set of rules which have been strictly respected in the interests of all students," principal Shaban Irfan said. "That is why we have been spared incidents.”
School psychologist Svetlana Ristoska says there has been no "garish wearing of religious symbols.”
"Outside of schools, they can dress as they want, but in school, they have to respect the rules," she says, adding the use of religious symbols could be inspired "either by parents or as a fashion trend.”
Outside school grounds, groups of young Muslim women can be seen dressed in mini-skirts alongside others in long-sleeves and headscarves.
Elvira, 18, says she does not wear anything on her head, going against the will of her mother.
"My mum is an older woman and she wears one. After I finished primary school, she wanted me to wear one to class, but I did not want to as it was not fashionable," she says. "My dad agreed and while my mother was not happy, she had to give in."
Silan, a Macedonian Muslim, feels headscarves are a "private right" but does not approve of parents forcing their daughters to wear them.
"Those who want to wear them, let them, it’s their right," says the 21-year-old economics student.
Tetovo’s leading Muslim cleric Alifikri Efendi Esati says "a choice to express religious respect is not a problem, but when politics interferes, there’s no happiness for anyone."
In recent years, youngsters have joined hardline Islamist groups like the Wahhabis, who stand out in Macedonia with their trademark beards and shortened pants.
The Islamic community is also very active in building mosques in areas populated by Muslims.
In Tetovo, eight new mosques have been erected in recent years and two more are under construction, compared to only one Orthodox Christian church in the town.