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United Methodists plan social, medical center in Macedonia

4/18/2000 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By United Methodist News Service

United Methodists in Macedonia are working in cooperation with Austrians to build a new center for social and medical care in Strumica, Macedonia.

The center is desperately needed because of the negative economic impact Macedonia suffered after housing hundreds of thousands of refugees during the war in Kosovo, according to United Methodist Bishop Heinrich Bolleter. The bishop, who is based in Zurich, Switzerland, oversees churches in central and southern Europe.

The United Methodist Church of Macedonia is donating the land in Strumica, which it received from the government as compensation for real estate seized during the communist era.

In April, directors of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) approved a $90,000 grant for the project. The Austrian government would pay the remainder of the cost provided the building is completed by October.

"We are working together with the Diaconia in Austria, which is the Protestant interchurch aid and relief organization," Bolleter said in an April 17 interview. He added that construction should begin in a few weeks. The prefabricated building should be completed by August and open in September.

Macedonia is a small country that was once part of Yugoslavia, and its new president, Boris Trajkovski, is a United Methodist. The country is struggling economically, with an unemployment rate of more than 40 percent and an average annual salary of about $700.

A refuge for those fleeing the 1999 war in Kosovo, Macedonia still houses up to 20,000 refugees in private homes. And because the country is the only corridor to Kosovo, it has become a transit route for the peacekeeping troops in the region.

The Strumica Valley consists of the regional capital of Strumica and 72 villages, with a total of about 110,000 residents. The city has a 250-bed hospital and two smaller hospitals, all with obsolete equipment. Family members must provide food and nursing care for the patients.

Many residents cannot afford to pay for outpatient treatment, medication and other health care needs, according to Bolleter. The valley also has no facilities for orphans, the disabled and the elderly.

As a government-approved religious community, the United Methodist Church in Macedonia will run the new center for social and medical care, with monitoring by the Diaconia in Austria. The center's director will be Gordana Miteva, the first female deacon to be educated at a United Methodist-related diaconal theological seminary for the Balkans.

Serving refugees and the poor, the center will distribute food and medicines, offer free medical checkups, provide programs for children, youth and the elderly, dispense social, legal and medical advice, schedule lectures and training, and serve one hot meal daily in the city of Strumica.

The bishop pointed out that the church has been active in the Strumica Valley for more than 140 years and has good relations with the Catholic and Orthodox churches and Islamic community and government authorities.

"They (United Methodists) show a great social commitment," he said. "Before the communist era, they contributed a lot to the formation of the Macedonian population and, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, set an example by bringing relief, especially to orphans and the handicapped."

Members of the Macedonia church also assisted refugees from Kosovo and still care for 32 families around Strumica and other refugees in remote villages.

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