North Macedonia

Last Updated 1 September 2023

Lying in the center of the Balkan Peninsula, the Republic of North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy,1 and an independent state since 1991 (previously being part of Yugoslavia). The country has a multi-party democratic system, and is officially is a secular state. Experiencing a name change after a parliamentary vote in 2019, the Republic of North Macedonia (formerly Macedonia) has maintained candidacy for European Union membership since 2005, and is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2020, the country was also granted NATO membership, becoming the 30th member state.2

According to the 2021 census, 46% of the population are Orthodox Christian and 32% Muslim. Other religious groups recorded are of various Christian denominations.  Less than 1% of the population are non-religious.3

According to the US State Department, “The majority of Orthodox Christians live in the central and southeastern regions. Most Muslims live in the northern and western parts of the country. There is a correlation between ethnicity and religious affiliation: the majority of Orthodox Christians are ethnic Macedonian, and most Muslims are ethnic Albanian. Most Roma and virtually all ethnic Turks and ethnic Bosniaks are Muslim, and most ethnic Serbs and Vlachs are Orthodox Christian. There is also a correlation between religious and political affiliation, as political parties are largely divided along ethnic lines.”4

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The Constitution5 guarantees basic human rights to all Macedonian citizens and Macedonia is theoretically a secular state.

Article 8 lists “humanism, social justice and solidarity” as among of the “fundamental values of the constitutional order.” Article 16 enshrines the right to “personal conviction, conscience, thought and public expression of thought” as well as freedom of speech, and access to information.

Article 19 states:

“The freedom of religious confession is guaranteed. The right to express one’s faith freely and publicly, individually or with others is guaranteed. The Macedonian Orthodox Church, as well as the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, the Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, the Jewish Community and other Religious communities and groups are separate from the state and equal before the law. The Macedonian Orthodox Church, as well as the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, the Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, the Jewish Community and other Religious communities and groups are free to establish schools and other social and charitable institutions, by way of a procedure regulated by law.”

According to the US State Department, the five religious groups listed in Article 19 are afforded tax exemptions and other benefits. The law allows other religious groups to obtain the same legal rights and status as these five groups by applying for government recognition and registration through the courts. Religious organizations may choose to register as a “church,” a “religious community,” or a “religious group.” The law treats these three categories equally, bestowing the same legal rights, benefits, and obligations on all of them. 6 According to the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB), smaller religious groups have faced challenges in registering as separate entities, with their applications the subject of domestic as well as European court cases.7

Citizens have the right to establish associations and political parries provided that their activities are not directed at “the violent destruction of the constitution order of the Republic, or at encouragement or incitement to military aggression or ethnic, racial or religious hatred or intolerance” (Article 20).

However, since 2006 and the rise of the “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity” (VMRO-DPMNE), self-described as “Christian democratic” and “nationalist” party, the government has increasingly been involved in promoting religion and/or religious beliefs and practices.

Government promotion of religion

According to IPPFoRB’s research, the Macedonian Orthodox Church enjoys a favored status, where “[n]umerous interlocutors from different religious communities as well as none, observed that the Macedonian Orthodox Church enjoyed special privileges, compared to the other religious communities.”8

In recent years the government has made discounted land available to the Orthodox Christian Church for the construction of religious buildings. Under the auspices of its “Skopje 2014” project, with the stated goals of rejuvenating the capital city Skopje, there have been a significant number of statues installed across the city honoring persons with specifically religious historic significance. This project was particularly controversial, not just because of the estimated cost of the project which has now been priced over 2 million euros (2,169,070 USD),9 but because the project failed to fully incorporate the Muslim (primarily ethnic Albanian) community in the country’s history.10

Furthermore, religious symbolism continues to be used within the state’s currency with the 1,000 Macedonian denar bill featuring an image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.11

Education and children’s rights

The constitution establishes public educational institutions as secular and based on the legal framework regulating education students are protected from discrimination based on sex, gender, race, national or social origin, political and religious beliefs and property and social status.  The framework emphasizes the importance of inclusivity and the promotion of human rights.12

The legal framework forbids religious organizations from proselytizing within schools, and bans religious activities or the display of religious symbols in primary schools. However, sixth-grade students are required to take one of three elective courses, two of which have religious content: “Introduction to Religions” and “Ethics in Religions.” The content is intended to be non-devotional. However, there are reports that priests and imams hired to teach such courses tend to emphasize the practice of their own religions rather than presenting a neutral overview of different faiths. If children do not wish to take a course on religion, parents can sign them up to the third option: “Classical Culture in European Civilization.” The US State Department reports that school children from secular or non-practicing families faced bullying for their “lack of religious education.” Reports indicate that the “Ethics in Religion” course may not be taught beyond 2023.13;

Religious organizations are permitted by law to operate schools at a secondary level and above. Religious high schools may determine their own curricula that are not required to be certified by the Ministry of Education and Science, although some reportedly do seek certification. Students who graduate from non-certified religious schools are unable to take the exams required for them to enroll in secular universities.14

Sex education

In accordance, with fellow Balkan states, access to sex education is limited in North Macedonia compared to other European countries. The country has failed to expand sex education classes across the state following a 2021 pilot program.15Antonovska D. The right to abortion in North Macedonia. Women Health Open J. 2021; 7(1): 1-3. doi: 10.17140/WHOJ-7-139 With existing classes and proposals to improve access to family planning and sexual health education being heavily criticized by the Orthodox Church. However, local NGOs such as HERA are trying to address these gaps in learning by providing education to women who can’t access existing basic sex education such as girls living in rural communities and marginalized women in the Roma community.16

Family, community and society

Religious identities, social and political

Reports suggest that, during political protests, especially “counter-protests” (a response from governing parties, to demonstrate that they have a larger number of supporters than those protesting against them), there is a heavy use of religious symbols and religious rhetoric, aligned with patriotism, disparaging anti-government protesters as less religious and less

Freedom House has reported that Islamophobia is ever present within political and societal discourse, strengthening existing ethnic divides particularly minority groups such as the Roma community.18

According to the US State Department, “[s]ince 2021, the law allows for fines against religious groups promoting gender-based violence and further stipulates that media and religious communities should promote policies against gender-based violence.”19

Sexual health and reproductive rights

In 2013, law mandated that requests for abortions after 10 weeks of pregnancy must be filed with the health ministry, were subject to counseling, required the informing of the woman’s partner, and could only be approved where the woman’s life is in danger, in cases of rape, or foetal deformity. Since 2019, these mandates have been amended in law, allowing women to access legal abortion procedures up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, without requiring medical permission or counseling, and up to 22 weeks in cases of the mother’s health, social economic circumstances, rape and foetal deformity. This law has also permitted the use of abortion pills (up to 9 weeks) for the first time in the country and can be accessed by women at their local practitioners and pharmacies.20Antonovska D. The right to abortion in North Macedonia. Women Health Open J. 2021; 7(1): 1-3. doi: 10.17140/WHOJ-7-13

With one of the lowest rates of contraception rates in Europe, women in particular face stigma and economic barriers to accessing modern contraception such as the pill in North Macedonia. These obstacles and societal prejudices have also impacted statistics of couples recorded using contraception, with only 13% admitting to using it in family planning. Such evidence, suggests that although there have been transformative changes in relation to women’s reproductive health care (such as access to abortion). Conservative attitudes towards traditional family planning across religious dominations remain.21Antonovska D. The right to abortion in North Macedonia. Women Health Open J. 2021; 7(1): 1-3. doi: 10.17140/WHOJ-7-13

LGBTI+ rights

In 1996, same-sex relationships were made legal, with the first Pride March being held in 2013.22 In 2014, Amendment XXXIII defined marriage restrictively as a union between a woman and a man, and a subsequent a ban on same-sex marriage (which remains in force to date in 2023).23

Another obstacle facing the LGBTI+ community is that adoption is only permitted for single gay people and not same-sex relationships. Furthermore, conversion therapy continues to be legal in North Macedonia and practiced at the hands of medical professionals, religious practitioners and family members.24 Similarly, members of the LGBTI+ community have also heavily criticized the Health Ministry’s decision to cut HIV and Aids funding by 40%.25

There have, however, been some improvements in the treatment of the LGBTI+ community. Lesbian and gay people can now join the army and are protected under the 2019 Anti-discrimination law in regards to employment.26 Although there is still prejudice against the LGBTI+ community there has been growing political and societal support with the 10th Pride March being held this year with attendees such as government ministers and support from the prime minister.27

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Groups that advocate secular, progressive (“non-traditional”) values, are largely ignored by the government. But, should they start gaining traction, they might experience biased media coverage, and an increase in government inspections, searching for any legal reason, however small, to fine the organization and disrupt its operations. This has certainly been exhibited in government responses to losses in local elections, with increased inspections on municipalities governed by the;

The Criminal Code29 (as amended 2016) under article 319, criminalizes various forms of attack on “national, ethnic, religious and other symbols” including “mocking” such symbols. However, this appears to be limited to circumstances in which the attack “causes or excites hatred, discord or intolerance”. The term “discord” is worryingly vague, nevertheless in the absence of evidence suggesting this law has been used to suppress legitimate criticism of religion, it appears to function as a law against incitement to hatred and not as a criminal blasphemy law. (This would change with any evidence that it was too-broadly applied.)


4, 6, 14, 19
7, 8
15 Antonovska D. The right to abortion in North Macedonia. Women Health Open J. 2021; 7(1): 1-3. doi: 10.17140/WHOJ-7-139
20 Antonovska D. The right to abortion in North Macedonia. Women Health Open J. 2021; 7(1): 1-3. doi: 10.17140/WHOJ-7-13
21 Antonovska D. The right to abortion in North Macedonia. Women Health Open J. 2021; 7(1): 1-3. doi: 10.17140/WHOJ-7-13
22, 26
24, 25, 27

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