EVERY morning, the men of St Petka play chess in the community centre attached to their Rockdale church. The children and teenagers practise Macedonian dancing every afternoon and the women light candles for God.
But there are no services at St Petka, once the largest Macedonian Orthodox church in Australia. They finished five years ago - just one casualty in a bitter battle seemingly about money and power between the association that owns the church and the Macedonian bishop.
The litigation is estimated to have cost $4 million and the association has sold assets and taken a second mortgage on its community child-care centre to defend itself against the legal action brought by Bishop Petar Karevski.
"This is a sad church," said Boris Dimcevski, the president of the association. "There's no services, no priest here. What people come here for, they sit here, light candles and see each other and that's all."
The dispute began with the 1996 appointment of the Very Reverend Father Mitko Mitrev to St Petka, whose staunch allegiance to the Macedonian hierarchy became a flashpoint that has apparently polarised the congregation and split families. But it is really a stoush over whether the bishop or the association has control over the church.
When Father Mitrev dispersed a portion of the church's collection money to the Melbourne and Sydney diocese under orders from the bishop, some members of the congregation accused him of stealing. The association sacked him in 1997.
The bishop and priest declared the termination invalid and sued the Macedonian Orthodox Community Church St Petka Incorporated - also known as the association - to assert control over a church they claimed had gone rogue.
Bishop Karevski now allegedly refuses to authorise any other priest but Father Mitrev to conduct services at St Petka, while the association says it will accept any other priest but him.
Peter Cotevich, the secretary of the association, said Macedonian immigrants had built the church from scratch with voluntary labour and financial contributions and it was therefore entitled to manage its own affairs.
But Father Mitrev said the association was acting outside the authority of the church.
"The public should understand this is a conflict between a group of people who call themselves an association and the Orthodox Church," Father Mitrev said.
"It's the same group of people who are controlling the finances in two other churches."
Last month the congregation came close to having their prayers answered for services to be resumed when Bishop Karevski agreed to officiate at St Petka for the Macedonian Christmas on January 7.
But the service was cancelled after the association got word that he planned to bring along Father Mitrev.
David Sachs, the solicitor for Bishop Karaveski, said the religious leader had been spat at, sworn at and threatened with violence, but he only wanted St Petka to come back within the Orthodox diocese of Australia and New Zealand.
Justice Peter Young will hand down a decision in the Supreme Court next week determining whether the bishop has the sole power to select priests.
The story Church legal battle divides Macedonian congregants first appeared on Fairfax Regional Pages.