July 23, 2011 – Washington, D.C. – The United Macedonian Diaspora (UMD) demands that Greek police fulfill their duty to protect Greek citizens of (and visitors to) Meliti, Greece (Ovcarani in Macedonian) during their annual Ilinden Festival this weekend. Every year, thousands of Greek citizens and others from around the world with a Macedonian cultural background or identity converge on Meliti (Ovcarani in Macedonian) for the Ilinden Festival. Nationalist and fascist groups within Greece have announced their intention to conduct demonstrations against festival-goers, and this year have been granted a permit by local authorities to do so.
“Every year, nationalistic and militaristic groups yell threatening, vulgar statements and attempt to intimidate festival-goers to not attend; particularly in a country that styles itself as the ‘cradle of democracy’, there is no place for such rhetoric,” stated UMD Board Chairman Stojan Nikolov. “All Greek citizens deserve the right to express their freedom of self-determination or ethnic identity, in this case to identify as ethnic Macedonians, to dance Macedonian dances and to speak and sing in Macedonian.”
Ovcarani is a village 15 km northeast of Florina, Greece (Lerin in Macedonian). According to the 2001 census in Greece, Ovcarani had 1,535 inhabitants. Ovcarani residents are well known for upholding their Macedonian heritage, despite intimidation by the Greek government and some Greek citizens, and were a Macedonian National Front stronghold during the Greek Civil War.
In September 2008, the Greek Army staged military exercises near Ovcarani, in the village of Lofoi (Zabrdeni in Macedonian), which also has a majority ethnic Macedonian identifying population. Residents from Ovcarani and Zabrdeni protested these exercises, stating that the Macedonian identifying ethnic minority will not be intimidated by the Greek Army. The residents were taken into police custody for interrogations that evening and later released. The military exercises prompted a public debate in the Greek Parliament, and later the Hellenic Ministry of Defense terminated the exercises.