Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov

Skopje - Macedonia's president asked religious leaders on Tuesday to help calm tensions in an ethnically mixed region of the Balkan country where a local carnival sketch that mocked Islam has angered ethnic Albanian Muslims.

The January 13 Vevcani carnival, in which an Orthodox Christian man dressed as a Muslim cleric was mocked by others wearing burqas, sparked protests in the south-western Struga region, and late on Monday a church in the area was damaged by fire.

The cause of the blaze was not known.

The carnival, held annually for hundreds of years, often has satirical sketches, including this year a mock funeral for Greece in a joking reference to that country's dire economic problems.

Macedonia still struggles with ethnic tensions more than a decade after clashes between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas demanding greater rights for the 25 percent Albanian minority were narrowly prevented from escalating into civil war.

Western diplomacy stopped the fighting in 2001 and the guerrillas entered politics, but relations remain difficult.

Most of Macedonia's Albanians are Muslims and, like the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Balkans, follow a moderate form of Islam.

Amid calls for calm on Tuesday, President Gjorge Ivanov met the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church HH Stefan and the leader of the Islamic community, Reis-ul-Ulema Sulejman Rexhepi.

“President Ivanov asked the religious leaders to use their authority to encourage greater inter-faith understanding,” said a statement issued by the president's office.

Protesters in the region, near Macedonia's western border with Albania, burned a Macedonian flag and stoned buses over the weekend. A church in the area was damaged, and there was a fire in a second church late on Monday.

A special parliamentary committee on ethnic relations, set up after the 2001 conflict, was due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the spike in tensions.

“We are working intensively to calm passions, sending a message that we should avoid further incidents and not be influenced by politics,” Struga mayor Ramiz Merko told media.

The Islamic Community in Macedonia issued a statement on Monday calling on Muslims to resist the influence of “provocateurs” and demanding criminal charges be brought against those involved in the carnival. - Reuters