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26 February 2009

SERBIA: Religious freedom survey, February 2009

In its survey analysis of freedom of thought, conscience or belief in Serbia, Forum 18 News Service notes that the most serious remains violent attacks, especially on Jehovah's Witness and Adventist property. The numbers of these attacks have been declining, and a crucial factor in this has been positive changes in media portrayals of non-Serbian Orthodox communities. Gaining legal status is difficult for communities defined by the Religion Law as "non-traditional" who must apply for recognition, and may face apparently arbitrary denials of status. This leads to practical problems for some communities, such as an inability to employ people. Restitution of confiscated property is a problem for most religious communities, including the Serbian Orthodox Church which suffered most communist-era confiscations. Legally, restitution of Jewish property confiscated in the Second World War is also difficult. Education is a sensitive issue, with problems such as negative portrayal of "non-traditional" communities in school religious education.

20 February 2009

SERBIA: Who can gain legal status?

State registration, or legal status, is difficult for "non-traditional" religious communities to gain in Serbia, Forum 18 News Service has found. This can prevent communities from, for example, employing people as clergy or other religious workers. However, although some religious communities known to Forum 18 are without legal status, this has not practically affected them. There does not appear to be a pattern in why some communities are practically affected but not others, and the Religion Ministry itself is not actively harassing unregistered organisations. Several unregistered religious communities are challenging the decision not to register them. These include the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognised by other Orthodox churches. A number of smaller communities have considered trying to register as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but as a draft NGO Law has not been passed by Parliament it is unclear when this will be legally possible.

3 December 2008

SERBIA: Violent attacks continuing, but mainly declining

The latest Forum 18 News Service survey of violent attacks against Serbia's religious communities – covering September 2007 to October 2008 – indicates that fewer attacks are taking place compared to previous years. As previously, most physical attacks have been on Seventh-day Adventist and Jehovah's Witnesses properties, and attacks on Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) properties have risen. As in earlier years, a number of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries have also suffered attacks. Dragan Novakovic, the Deputy Religion Minister, told Forum 18 that the police and judicial authorities do not provide his Ministry with adequate information. Novakovic also regretted that attackers are usually charged with violating public order, instead of - where appropriate - the more serious charge of inciting or exacerbating national, racial, or religious hatred – which carries higher penalties than public order charges. Novakovic told Forum 18 that the Ministry is determined to reduce attacks. "We will need years to get it down to an acceptable level, but we are determined to do it."

26 February 2008

MACEDONIA: Religious freedom survey, February 2008

In Macedonia, state discrimination in favour of one religious confession – the Macedonian Orthodox Church - is a dominant factor, Forum 18 News Service notes in its religious freedom survey analysis. Alongside this is active discrimination against other religious confessions, especially if officials see them as a threat or as "non-traditional". The main target for state officials is the Serbian Orthodox Church, but smaller confessions such as Baptists, Bektashi Muslims, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses are also discriminated against. The major problem faced by most confessions is their inability – due to inconsistent and discriminatory enforcement of the law and planning procedures – to build, expand or obtain buildings for worship. Unclear and discriminatory legal provisions continue in a new Religion Law, due to come into force in May 2008. The Macedonian authorities show few, if any, signs that they are willing to protect the religious freedom of all Macedonian citizens.

7 February 2008

SERBIA: Why won't the authorities stop religious violence?

Despite continuing attacks on religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found that Serbian authorities appear to be taking few steps to protect their citizens. An extreme illustration of the unwillingness of the authorities to provide justice to religious minority victims is the case of Zivota Milanovic, the only Hare Krishna devotee in Jagodina. He has repeatedly been the victim of knife attacks between 2001 and 2007, yet Jagodina police and the District Prosecutor's Office have taken no effective steps in any of the cases. Because of the official inaction, he told Forum 18 that "I believe that I will be attacked again." A lawyer familiar with the case commented to Forum 18 that "any other attack with more than three stabbings is treated as 'attempted murder'." Faced with the authorities' lack of interest in investigating and stopping these violent crimes, Milanovic has filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The ECtHR has not yet decided whether the case is admissible.

18 January 2008

SERBIA: Legal status possible "in 450-500 years"?

Serbia continues to deny legal status to religious minority communities for reasons – if they are given – which are not found in the Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The principal person responsible appears to be former Religion Minister Milan Radulovic, who is now an adviser in the Ministry. He refuses some registration applications if the community: refuses to unite with similar communities; is an Orthodox church which is not viewed as part of the Serbian Orthodox Church; is not monotheist; does not have a headquarters in another country; or is seen as non-traditional or philosophical. Speaking to Forum 18, Radulovic has repeatedly said that communities "who are not monotheistic cannot be registered." Radulovic also said that "some of these groups might become part of the structure in 450-500 years when they pass historical tests." Current Religion Minister Radomir Naumov appears to be content to let Radulovic make the decisions.

9 October 2007

SERBIA: Violence continues against religious communities

The number of attacks on Serbia's religious communities appears to continue to be declining, Forum 18 News Service notes in its latest annual survey of such attacks. However, the attacks themselves seem to be becoming more violent and, as in previous years, members of religious minorities are especially likely to be attacked. The police continue to be apparently unwilling to protect members of religious minorities or religious sites at risk of attack – even if they have already been attacked. Members of religious minorities have in the past year been beaten and stabbed, and places of worship have been the targets of arson attacks. Places of worship of the Orthodox Church have occasionally been robbed, but the vast majority of attacks have been on Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness and other religious minority individuals and property. Religious communities are sometimes reluctant to report attacks to the police or make them publicly known. Forum 18 knows of smaller "traditional" communities which have denied that they have been attacked after attacks have taken place.

14 August 2007

SERBIA: Arbitrary legal status denials continue

Although Milan Radulovic has been replaced as Serbian Religion Minister by Radomir Naumov, Radulovic is still responsible for deciding whether legal status should be given to religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Some see Radulovic as still in charge of the Ministry, with new Minister Naumov functioning as a figurehead. Many of Serbia's so-called "non-traditional" religious communities are still being denied legal status, including Baptists, Old Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees. This means that they are unable to legally carry out activities such as running bank accounts, owning property, or paying tax. Two unregistered communities known to Forum 18 have been able to run a bank account, buy property and publish literature, but it is unclear how long this will continue. Interviewed by Forum 18, ex-Minister Radulovic would not explain how specific problems caused to communities by the Religion Ministry could be resolved.

26 April 2007

SERBIA: Government still arbitrarily denying communities legal status

Religious communities in Serbia are still having legal status applications arbitrarily denied, one year after a controversial Religion Law was passed, Forum 18 News Service has found. Many communities are waiting with concern for 7 May 2007. On that day any communities registered before the Law came into force, who have not either re-registered or submitted a new registration application, will lose legal status. Without legal status, it is legally impossible to carry out a wide range of activities such as owning property, publishing literature and having employees. The Religion Ministry has claimed to Forum 18 that seven "non-traditional" communities have gained legal status in the past year - but one of these was unaware that it had legal status. Protestant communities, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses have all had applications arbitrarily denied, often for reasons which are clearly misleading or in breach of the Religion Law. Both the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baptist Union have launched court cases, and if these fail appeals to the European Court of Human Rights are almost certain.

12 March 2007

SERBIA: Very slow official implementation of Restitution Law

Serbia's Restitution Law is being implemented only very slowly, Forum 18 News Service has found. Even the "traditional" religious communities, who have automatic legal status, are having problems in making claims, including the Serbia Orthodox Church which suffered more confiscations than other communities. The Jewish community had much property confiscated during the Second World War, but the Law covers only post-1945 confiscations. Slovak Lutheran Church Bishop Samuel Vrbovsky told Forum 18 he is "not too optimistic" about the restitution process. "My only hope is that because the Serbian Orthodox Church has significant property to be returned, we smaller communities will also get our property back as well." The Islamic community has "a long list of confiscated property," but is finding it difficult to exercise its legal rights. Both "traditional" and "non-traditional" communities are finding it difficult to assemble the documentation required to prove ownership. As the state has been extremely slow in implementing the Restitution Law, it is not yet possible to judge the fairness of the process.

1 March 2007

SERBIA: Stalling tactics used to delay granting legal status?

Only three religious communities – the Seventh-day Adventist and United Methodist churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) - appear to have been given legal status under Serbia's controversial Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. This is unofficial, as Religion Minister Milan Radulovic's office has not answered Forum 18's repeated enquiries about what if any official figures there may be. Many smaller religious communities – such as the Adventist Reform movement and Hare Krishna community – appear to have had their registration applications arbitrarily stalled. One apparent stalling tactic of the Religion Ministry is to try to force communities to register as Citizens Associations with the Public Administration Ministry – which then tells them to go back to the Religion Ministry to register as religious communities. In separate legal challenges, the Jehovah's Witnesses are taking the Religion Ministry to the Supreme Court for breaking the Religion Law, and the Serbian Baptist Union are refusing to apply for registration and have started a case against the Religion Law in the Constitutional Court.

4 December 2006

SERBIA: Simultaneously legal and illegal religious communities

Nearly seven months after Serbia's controversial new Religion Law – admitted by Serbian President Boris Tadic to break the European Convention on Human Rights - entered into force, no so-called "non-traditional" religious communities have received state registration and legal status, Forum 18 News Service has found. Many communities, such as smaller Protestant communities and Jehovah's Witnesses, that have applied have had their applications arbitrarily stalled. Others – such as the Baptist Union - have told Forum 18 they will not apply, as they regard the Law as discriminatory and the conditions it sets as unacceptable. Some communities, such as the Hare Krishnas, are afraid that information supplied to the authorities may be misused. Technically, the Religion Ministry claims, non-registered religious communities can legally operate. But this is legally unworkable, as to legally have a bank account, and undertake activities such as employing staff, legal documents are necessary – which non-registered religious communities have not been able to acquire.

28 November 2006

SERBIA: Legal status to be denied to religious-based associations?

Serbian religious-based associations, which are not churches and do not conduct worship, have expressed their growing frustration to Forum 18 News Service about unlawful attempts by the Public Administration Ministry to strip them of their legal status. This is a very serious problem for such religious associations, as this bars them from gaining access to their own bank accounts, or taking decisions as a corporate legal body. Associations affected by this state-created legal problem include the Serbian Evangelical Alliance. In an apparent attempt to avoid bad publicity, when Forum 18 made enquiries the Ministry suddenly ordered local officials "urgently" to issue certificates confirming current registration to two Protestant associations and a Catholic group, the Pax Romana Association of Christian Intellectuals. This abrupt reversal of policy should allow these associations access to their own bank accounts. However, the Ministry is still ordering that these groups' registration as associations should be revoked, and that they must instead apply for registration at the Religion Ministry.

25 September 2006

SERBIA: Attacks continue on religious minorities

Although the number of violent attacks on Serbia's religious minorities has declined in recent years, numerous such attacks still continue, Forum 18 News Service has found in its latest annual survey. In June a Hare Krishna devotee was knifed. One blackspot is the town of Backa Palanka, where Seventh-day Adventist and Pentecostal churches have faced graffiti, arson and stone-throwing attacks and a Jehovah's Witness was assaulted. A newly-built Catholic church in Smederevo has faced three attacks in the past year, while Nazarene, Orthodox, Lutheran, Muslim and Mormon sites have also been attacked. On 6 September a new Islamic faculty being prepared in Novi Pazar was vandalised. Frustrated by officials' failure to prosecute those who boasted of burning down a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in 1999, Jehovah's Witnesses this year sued the Serbian state.

20 September 2006

KOSOVO: Religion law fails to tackle contentious legal status question

While some Protestants are jubilant that the new religion law approved by the Kosovo Assembly on 13 July has been amended by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to specify five of the faiths by name that enjoy rights and freedoms (Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Jews and Evangelicals) others are critical. "If it is true that the Evangelical (Pentecostal) church is mentioned it is not right, since all should be mentioned or none," Adventist pastor Nikola Aslimovski complained to Forum 18 News Service. UNMIK promulgated the law on 24 August, but only made this public on 20 September. The law fails to tackle the highly contentious issue of how and which religious communities will get legal status. "Everything should be nailed down in one law," one religious freedom expert told Forum 18. "Nothing should ever be left vague to be returned to later."

9 August 2006

SERBIA: Religion Minister breaks his own law

Serbia's Religion Minister, Milan Radulovic, has broken the controversial Religion Law his ministry sponsored, Forum 18 News Service has found. Radulovic's Ministry has published Regulations which illegally increase the number of adult Serbian citizens required for a religious community to be registered, from the 75 the Religion Law specifies to 100. The Ministry has repeatedly refused to say why it did this. What legal rights registered and unregistered communities will have remains unclear, and a legal challenge to the Religion Law has been submitted to the Serbian Constitutional Court, based on contradictions between the Law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Some Evangelical churches are refusing to apply for registration, as they refuse to "voluntarily and peacefully agree with discrimination between the churches." "Justice can only be gained via a court process, or with the help of the international community," two Evangelical leaders have publicly declared.

29 June 2006

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: Implementation the issue for OSCE – a survey

All Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states are committed to "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief," recognising that this is a litmus test of the state of human rights. OSCE commitments to human rights have been reiterated and enhanced. Yet some OSCE states, especially in the eastern part of the OSCE region where Forum 18 News Service works, repeatedly break their commitments and attack religious freedom. Examples include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which commit persistent and even worsening religious freedom and other human rights violations. Forum 18 here surveys the situation. The question facing the OSCE is: How, concretely, are its repeated commitments to free, democratic, tolerant societies which respect human rights to be implemented, faced with states whose concrete actions directly contradict their commitments?

20 June 2006

SERBIA: Restitution Law passed

As Serbia and Montenegro separate, the Serbian National Assembly has passed a Restitution Law for property confiscated from religious communities. Much doubt remains about whether the Law will operate fairly, Forum 18 News Service has found. There are also concerns about how the complex legal problems involved will be resolved. This is especially the case for communities, such as Kalmykian Buddhists, with no unambiguously clear legal successor. It is also, Forum 18 has found, a problem for those – such as Adventists and Baptists - whose property was in the 1920s and 1930s formally owned by private individuals or companies, even though it was in practice owned by the church. Property such as formerly-Catholic and formerly-Methodist hospitals is barred from return. But religious communities also hope to regain some property, such as Catholic and Serbian Orthodox land given to the churches in the eighteenth century by the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

23 May 2006

SERBIA: No changes to controversial Religion Law

Despite Serbian President Boris Tadic requesting amendments to the new Religion Law as it breaks the European Convention on Human Rights, and strong criticism from the OSCE and Council of Europe, the Religion Ministry "is not preparing any amendments and no-one has sent any amendments to the Ministry," it told Forum 18 News Service. Religion Minister Milan Radulovic refused to comment on either the President's request, or the strong criticism of the Law. Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights told Forum 18 that "I believe that the pressure of international organisations - including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the US Congress – is needed." Vidan Hadzi-Vidanovic of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights states that they will challenge the Law in the Constitutional Court. But, "we will need help to ensure that an appeal to the Constitutional Court does not end up in some file," Zarko Djordjevic of the Serbian Baptist Union told Forum 18.

9 May 2006

SERBIA: Are some more equal than others?

The Serbian Government, following its discriminatory Religion Law, is planning a law to restore or provide compensation for religious property confiscated after 1945. However, Forum 18 News Service has found that some fear that the Restitution Law will be used to discriminate against all but the seven recognised "traditional" religious communities. Nenad Ilic of the Ministry of International Economic Relations has insisted to Forum 18 that the law covers "all churches that have confiscated property, irrespective of whether they are traditional or are some other kind of church or religion." But the text of the law does not contain an unambiguous statement of this. Vidan Hadzi-Vidanovic of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights told Forum 18 that "I am almost sure that it will be changed with amendments to make restitution apply only to the seven traditional communities. Restitution should be made to all people affected and not just to some communities."

28 April 2006

SERBIA: President signs controversial religion law

Despite openly recognising that the controversial new religion law approved by parliament on 20 April violates the European Convention on Human Rights, Serbian president Boris Tadic signed it into law on 27 April. He ordered parliament to amend the law "in an urgent vote" to remove the violations, though Aleksandar Mitrovic of Serbia's Evangelical Alliance told Forum 18 News Service the president "was unable to give me a clear answer as to how he thinks he can achieve this, given his status and authority". Under a last-minute amendment before parliament approved the law, all but the seven recognised "traditional" faiths lose their legal status and will have to reapply, even those present in Serbia for more than a century like the Nazarenes, Baptists and Adventists. They also lose their tax-exempt status. "This law makes some citizens more equal than others," General Secretary of the Baptist Union Zarko Djordjevic complained to Forum 18. Minority faiths also fear they will lose the chance to regain confiscated property in the restitution bill expected to begin its parliamentary process in May.

21 April 2006

SERBIA: Religion law rushed through parliament

Serbia's National Assembly has with great haste passed the controversial new religion law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It has long been in preparation, and there is suspicion about why the law has been rushed through parliament just before the Serbian Easter holiday. Serbian President Boris Tadic has been asked to sign the Law into force "immediately." Many NGOs, religious communities and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission are highly critical of the law, but in an undated Religion Ministry report obtained by Forum 18, it is claimed that the law "is agreed by all churches, religious communities and other religious communities in Serbia." This is strongly denied by many religious communities, who are very concerned that the law's final text is not publicly available. "We cannot see the text. We cannot complain because we do not know what to complain about," Dane Vidovic of the Baptists told Forum 18, in a comment echoed by many.

17 April 2006

SERBIA: Almost no one satisfied as religion bill reaches parliament

Serbia's National Assembly is today (17 April) due to begin consideration of the long-delayed new religion bill, which many religious communities and human rights activists complain discriminates between five levels of religious community with differing status, grants pre-eminence to the Serbian Orthodox Church at the expense of other faiths, fails to protect non-theistic beliefs adequately, prevents religious communities of similar name from gaining state registration and fails to protect against arbitrary denial of registration. "Our main complaint is that those drafting the law have capitulated under pressure from the national churches," Zarko Djordjevic of Serbia's Baptist Union told Forum 18 News Service. Some question the timing - between Western and Eastern Easter - of parliamentary consideration for this, the sixth draft religion law in thirteen years. "Maybe I sound paranoid, but controversial laws like this were always voted on in the holiday season and I believe the authorities want to do the same now," declared Belgrade professor Ljubisa Rajic.

15 February 2006

KOSOVO: Controversial provisions in latest religion law draft

Kosovo's latest draft religion law, drawn up in secrecy under Austrian auspices, privileges the Muslim community, Catholics and the Serbian Orthodox Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The draft law has the support of these communities, but others disagree with its provisions. Amongst disputed issues are proposals to give some communities "special status" but effectively bar others from receiving this for at least 10 years. Pastor Artur Krasniqi stressed in general to Forum 18 that Protestants "do not agree in any way with any discrimination whatsoever towards any religious group". He was also concerned by the majority Muslim community's attitude to minorities, and Chief Imam Sabri Bajgora's recent statement that "Muslims will not be responsible for any consequences whatsoever to Protestants if they do not stop their activity in this country." The OSCE Mission noted that it looks at all draft laws "especially when they concern the rights of smaller religious and ethnic communities."

15 February 2006

KOSOVO: Secrecy surrounds latest religion law's drafting

The latest draft Kosovo religion law, secretly drawn up under the auspices of the Austrian Government with the involvement of only three religious communities, is causing great concern. "It is not right that a closed group should draw up a new law for Kosova outside Kosova, without all Kosovars and the whole Assembly having any opportunity to comment on the proposals," Baptist Pastor Bekim Beka told Forum 18 News Service. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Mission and some religious leaders did not know about the latest draft or the Austrian discussions. Pastor Dijana Daka of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who had been closely involved in the previous discussions, told Forum 18 that she had not heard of the latest proposals and had not been consulted.

29 September 2005

MACEDONIA: Trials without end for Serbian Orthodox?

Just days after being handed an extra two years in prison for "embezzlement" for holding church funds in a private bank account for two days three years ago - bringing his total prison term to four and a half years - the fourth trial for Archbishop Jovan, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, began in Veles on 29 September. "It is ridiculous that I am accused of embezzling the funds that I spent on the life and work of my diocese," Archbishop Jovan told Forum 18 News Service before his recent imprisonment. Eleven church members who attended a service he conducted in a private flat in January 2004 now face court summonses. Goran Pavlovski, spokesperson for the cabinet of ministers, refused to explain to Forum 18 why his government is so hostile to Macedonian parishes of the Serbian Orthodox Church and declined to say if Macedonian citizens are allowed to belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. It has called its followers to a week of fasting in response to the third sentence in a row against Archbishop Jovan.

20 September 2005

MACEDONIA: Serbian bishop remains in prison as appeal fails

Despite appeals from politicians and Christian leaders around the world, on 16 September Macedonia's Supreme Court upheld the 18-month prison sentence on the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Archbishop Jovan. "The Macedonian state is doing everything to make him stay in prison as long as possible," his colleague Bishop Marko complained to Forum 18 News Service. "They are discriminating against him, that is obvious, and also against all of us in Macedonia, their own citizens." Archbishop Jovan has been denied visits in prison from his church colleagues and denied access to religious services. On 19 September he was taken to Veles as prosecutors try for the third time to convict him of embezzlement, a charge he denies. The Macedonian Helsinki Committee has condemned those who call for "intolerance and hatred" against Serbian Orthodox in the country.

19 September 2005

SERBIA: Romanian priest to pay for official destruction of his church

Radmila Gerov, mayor of Negotin in eastern Serbia, has told Forum 18 News Service that a Romanian Orthodox church whose destruction has been ordered should have been approved by the Serbian Orthodox Church. She cited the 2003 planning law, although no such requirement exists in the law. The Negotin building inspectorate told the community's priest Fr Bojan Aleksandrovic on 24 August that as he has failed to destroy the church himself the authorities will do so at his expense. "As happens in such a situation, everyone tries to wash their hands, claming that someone else is responsible, yet the decision exists," Fr Aleksandrovic complained to Forum 18. He fears that any day the building inspector could notify him that demolition will take place the same day. Serbia's authorities also obstruct the functioning of Old Calendarist, Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox communities.

14 September 2005

SERBIA: "Heavy pressure" forces postponement of first Macedonian Orthodox church

Soon after news emerged that an ethnic Macedonian association had bought a plot of land in Novi Sad to build Serbia's first Macedonian Orthodox church, religion minister Milan Radulovic declared publicly that the state has a duty to prevent the building of the church. "Radulovic's statements deny us one of our most basic rights – the right to freedom of confession," Dragan Veljkovski, president of the Association of Macedonians in Vojvodina which bought the site, told Forum 18 News Service. He complained of "very heavy pressure" since the news became public which has led to the building plans being postponed. Macedonians contrast the Serbian government's strong defence of the persecuted Serbian Orthodox Church in neighbouring Macedonia with its moves to restrict non-Serbian Orthodox jurisdictions at home.

12 September 2005

SERBIA: Minister bans "non-existent" Church from building church

While a Serbian Orthodox church is being built in Lovcenac in northern Vojvodina, the local authority's allocation of land in the same village to build a Montenegrin Orthodox church sparked an immediate response from Serbia's religion minister, Milan Radulovic. He claimed that as an unregistered religious community, the Montenegrin Church does not exist, adding that the government has a duty to stop it and the Macedonian Orthodox Church building any places of worship in Serbia. The head of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, Archbishop Mihailo, condemned what he called "arrogant behaviour on the part of Serbia", pointing out to Forum 18 News Service that the Serbian Orthodox Church operates unhindered in Montenegro. The Serbian government has tried to exclude or restrict all other Orthodox communities, including the Romanian Orthodox, the Old Calendarist Orthodox, the Macedonian Orthodox and the Montenegrin Orthodox.

9 September 2005

SERBIA: Stabbing, beatings, arson and slander against religious minorities

Recent incidents of violence against Serbia's religious minorities have included the wounding by stabbing of Hare Krishna devotee Zivota Milanovic in the town of Jagodina and the beating of two Muslim conscripts during their military service, Forum 18 News Service notes in its latest listing of verbal and physical attacks on religious minority communities. Places of worship – particularly Adventist churches – have been vandalised and subjected to arson attacks, while the authorities have threatened to destroy a Romanian Orthodox church. A Serbian Orthodox bishop was quoted in the press as threatening to make sure that whatever the Old Calendarist Orthodox build will be torn down.

8 September 2005

SERBIA: Minister admits but downplays attacks on religious minorities

As physical and verbal attacks on religious minorities continued over the summer, Serbia's religion minister Milan Radulovic has challenged Forum 18 News Service's documentation of the extent of such attacks over the past year and a half. While Forum 18 listed over 100 attacks on religious minorities in 2004, Radulovic put the number at 82, dismissing all but two as resulting in no more than "minimal" damage. He claims the number of such attacks this year has fallen by half. This is the first time a Serbian government minister has admitted such attacks have taken place, even if few attacks ever lead to prosecutions. "The very fact that in 2004, the police registered 82 attacks but brought only four criminal charges for inciting religious hatred, while in the first six months of 2005 police registered 20 attacks but launched only one criminal case for inciting religious hatred gives cause for concern," Vidan Hadzi-Vidanovic of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights told Forum 18.

28 July 2005

SERBIA: Eight sentenced for 2004 Mosque burning

The trial of those accused of burning down the southern city of Nis' Islam-aga mosque in 2004 has produced outrage in the Muslim community at the light sentences imposed, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The arson was triggered by Kosovo rioting which left 20 dead and 30 Serbian Orthodox churches burned or badly damaged. The maximum sentence that could have been imposed is 5 years in jail, but one person was sentenced to 5 months in jail, seven others were given 3 months each in jail, whilst two were freed. Three more people are still being tried. "We are not satisfied with the sentences," imam Mustafa Jusuf-Spahic told Forum 18, noting that the case may "unavoidably" have to come before international courts. Several Serbian political parties and NGOs have also condemned the light sentences, Miroslav Jankovic of the Belgrade Youth Initiative for Human Rights, telling Forum 18 that he hopes that the state prosecutor would appeal against the sentences.

27 July 2005

MACEDONIA: Orthodox Archbishop jailed – without the Gospels

The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Archbishop Jovan (Vranisskovski) of Ohrid and Skopje, has now been jailed for 18 months on charges of "inciting national, racial and religious hatred, schism and intolerance". Jovan's colleague, Bishop Marko of Dremvica and Bitola, told Forum 18 News Service that, as well as keeping Jovan under conastant surveillance, police forced him to change out of his cassock and refused to allow him to take anything with him into prison. "The archbishop was not permitted to take his prayer book, the Gospels, an icon or any of the insignia of his rank with him," Bishop Marko told Forum 18. During the first 30 days of his jail term, Jovan is not being allowed visits from anyone, apart from his lawyer and his immediate family, who are only being allowed to visit him once, for five minutes only. After the initial 30 days he will be either be sent to a maximum security prison unit, or to a unit with less strict discipline.

5 July 2005

SERBIA: Further foot-dragging in mosque burning case

Due to persistent delays by defence lawyers and the non-appearance of several defendants, the trial of 11 young people accused of burning the Islam-aga mosque in Nis has not yet begun - over fifteen months after the arson attack took place. The attack took place at the same time as the March 2004 arson attacks on Orthodox churches in Kosovo. Miroslav Jankovic of the Belgrade-based Youth Initiative for Human Rights, told Forum 18 News Service that the accused will be tried "for group violence, not for initiating religious hatred. The prosecutor is showing there is no will in Serbia to finally prosecute anyone for religious hatred – or even to admit that religious hatred exists." Belgrade imam Muhamed Jusufspahic, whose mosque was also attacked, noted that the Belgrade attackers also were only facing charges of participating in a violent group, not of religious hatred. Novi Sad's imam stated that police had not found those who had destroyed the Muslim prayer house there.

1 July 2005

KOSOVO: Continuing concerns over religion law draft

Despite improvements to the draft text, Protestant pastors still have concerns about the adoption of a religion law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Catholic Church hopes that anything not included in the law now can be changed later, and Bishop Artemije of the Serbian Orthodox Church has refused to take part. Chief mufti Naim Ternava has demanded religious education in schools and that the state pay for up to 2,000 imams. Concerns have also been expressed about the Religious Affairs Department led by Isa Ukella, an official who was in charge of religious affairs in Communist times. Protestant sources have told Forum 18 that "He still pressures believers." The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has insisted to Forum 18 that any religion law will conform to international human rights standards. One observer noted that the appointment of Danish diplomat Søren Jessen-Petersen, as UN Special Representative, led to UNMIK ceasing to ignore religion and starting to play a much more positive role.

20 June 2005

SERBIA: Police ban Romanian Orthodox commemoration

When ethnic Vlachs led by a local Romanian Orthodox priest tried to hold a religious commemoration at the abandoned monastery of Koroglas in eastern Serbia on 21 May, they faced not only an alleged "spontaneously-organised" group of Serbian Orthodox who had pledged not to allow the commemoration to proceed but a ban by the local police. "When I requested them to show me an official document forbidding the procession and commemoration, the police did not have one," organiser Dusan Prvulovic told Forum 18 News Service. The commemoration had to go ahead at a cultural centre in a nearby town. Police have refused to tell Forum 18 if the commemoration at Koroglas had indeed been banned and if so why, and why Prvulovic was charged with inciting religious hatred (the court that convened the following Sunday morning acquitted him). The authorities have meanwhile held off from the threatened demolition of a Romanian Orthodox church in a nearby village which they claim was illegally built.

9 June 2005

SERBIA: Increased attacks on religious minorities

Last year saw an upsurge in attacks on religious minorities, ranging from slander and vilification in the media to physical attacks on places of worship and individuals, with such attacks continuing at a high level into this year, Forum 18 News Service reports in presenting the results of its investigation into religious intolerance in Serbia. More than 100 attacks took place on Protestant, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Jewish, Muslim and Romanian Orthodox targets in 2004, with more than 25 such attacks between January and May this year. Religious minorities complain the authorities are failing to take action to punish the perpetrators. Incidents range from an attack on a mosque in Presevo with a hand-held rocket launcher last February to graffiti "Death to Adventists" written on the walls of the Adventist theological college in Belgrade in March. Numerous Catholic graveyards have been desecrated, while the media constantly speak of Protestants, Old Calendarist Orthodox and Mormons as "dangerous sects".

8 June 2005

MACEDONIA: Why is state interfering in Orthodox dispute?

When the Serbian Orthodox Church granted its embattled branch in Macedonia full autonomy in late May, the Macedonian prime minister rejected the move "with indignation". The government has stepped up its hostility to the Church and reaffirmed its support for the rival Macedonian Orthodox Church, which is not recognised by the rest of the Orthodox world. Archbishop Jovan of Ohrid – who heads the Serbian Church in Macedonia – complained of a new state-backed media campaign against his Church. "They are creating an unstable, explosive atmosphere among the population and are virtually inviting people to lynch us," he told Forum 18 News Service. The government has denied his Church registration, attacked its places of worship and launched two criminal cases against him. Macedonian government leaders have been unable to tell Forum 18 why they are interfering in the dispute between the Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox Churches in Macedonia and why they are denying full legal rights to Serbian Orthodox believers.

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

16 May 2005

SERBIA: Orthodox veto on new religion law?

The long delay in completing the text of a new religion law is being caused by the Serbian government waiting for comments from the Serbian Orthodox Church, sources close to the government have told Forum 18 News Service. The government is not commenting on the cause of the delay. "There are no statements for the press and no information," Religion Minister Milan Radulovic told Forum 18. "When the time comes, all will be informed." Earlier drafts of the law met strong criticisms from religious minorities and the Council of Europe, and there seems to be a level of legal confusion which has led to Serbia's Baptist Union facing a suspended fine.

15 March 2005

SERBIA: Romanian Orthodox church threatened with demolition

Romanian Orthodox deacon Bojan Aleksandrovic is fighting an order, by the local authority, that he must demolish a church he built on his land in his home village of Malajnica in eastern Serbia. Officials say he cannot build without planning permission (although this is not required in rural areas) or the permission of the separate Serbian Orthodox Church (although this is nowhere required in law). Because Aleksandrovic is not a cleric of the Serbian Church "he has no right to ask to build a church," the council declared. Police too have questioned him about his religious activity. "All the questions were related to Orthodox church rules and jurisdiction rather than to civil law," Aleksandrovic told Forum 18 News Service. The Serbian government has long refused to recognise the Romanian Orthodox Church's diocese in the country.

22 February 2005

SERBIA: No religion law means a "dangerous legal void"?

The latest, fourth, draft of a proposed religion law is an "improvement," Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist leaders have told Forum 18 News Service. However, religious minorities are worried that the latest draft, like previous drafts, divides religious communities into "traditional" faiths and other faiths with lesser rights. Baptist Pastor Dane Vidovic told Forum 18 that this division "is critical, because it will affect other laws and areas of life, including rights to religious education in public schools, taxes and property, social security and pension funds." Religion Minister Milan Radovic has recently wrongly claimed that Serbia is the "only country in Europe without a law regulating relations between the state and religious communities", claiming that this is a "dangerous legal void". Some European countries, such as Ireland, have never had a religion law and have no plans to introduce such a law.

9 February 2005

MACEDONIA: Priests and police raid and threaten Serbian Orthodox believers

Nearly a hundred members of the Serbian Orthodox Church's (SOC) Archbishopric of Ohrid in Macedonia were questioned by police and searched, after they backed its failed registration application, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Some were threatened they would be kicked out of their jobs. Police also tried to pressure them to sign a declaration that they had left the SOC for the rival, government-backed Macedonian Orthodox Church. When police questioned church member Goran Bogatinoski in Prilep in early January, they asked him why he allowed SOC monks to stay in his house and why there were icons in his home. Father David of the SOC Ohrid Archbishopric complained to Forum 18 of a "new wave" of police intimidation launched last December. The Interior Ministry denies that police questioned anyone just for signing the registration application.

4 February 2005

MACEDONIA: Selective refusal to register Serbian Orthodox Church

The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Metropolitan Jovan (Vranisskovski), has told Forum 18 News Service that he is challenging in the Supreme Court the government's refusal to register the Archbishopric of Ohrid. Without registration, the Archbishopric cannot own any church buildings or other property, maintain a bank account or receive permission to build churches. "Although the Constitutional court has ruled that people can gather in private homes for worship, the police do not always share that opinion," Metropolitan Jovan told Forum 18. "Basically, the police can break up any private meeting and arrest believers and priests if they want. For them without registration the Archbishopric of Ohrid is an illegal organisation." The government also claimed against Metropolitan Jovan that "only citizens of Macedonia can organise a religious group", ignoring the fact that he is a Macedonian citizen. It is notable that neither the Catholic Church nor the Methodist Church have had this claim used against them by the Macedonian government.

19 November 2004

KOSOVO: "Religious freedom will be seriously hindered" by draft law

Religious minorities and the Kosovo office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are seriously concerned by a draft religion law being discussed by Kosovo's government. "I can tell you that we have some concerns with what we've seen," the OSCE has told Forum 18 News Service. The Evangelical Movement of Kosova, representing several Albanian-speaking Protestant churches, said that "We believe the rights of religious freedom within the Protestant community of Kosovo will be seriously hindered." Professor Xhabir Hamiti of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Pristina also expressed grave concerns to Forum 18. Asked why a draft that seriously contradicts international human rights commitments was sent to the government, he said that "we didn't have any influence. Government people or others changed the text by themselves." One Protestant on the drafting group, Pastor Artur Krasniqi, described the draft as "totalitarianism". Fr Sava of the Orthodox Decani Monastery, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Jehovah's Witnesses all told Forum 18 that they had neither heard of the draft law, nor been given copies of it.

10 November 2004

COMMENTARY: Kosovo - What now?

The KFOR peace-keeping force needs to defend the Serbian population and its Orthodox churches more effectively, a military chaplain, who prefers not to be identified, argues from personal experience of the violence in Kosovo in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The chaplain believes that international organisations naively did not understand the minds of the people of the region – and so did not understand what was necessary to provide religious freedom. The international community needs to state clearly that independence will not be granted until minorities have full rights and security. The big challenge is changing people's mentality before independence can be considered – and this requires a long-term commitment to genuine peace and genuine justice from both Albanian politicians and the international community.

23 September 2004

MACEDONIA: Serbian Orthodox "will never get registration"

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia has again submitted a registration application, but this is unlikely to succeed. Such communities "will never get registration", Cane Mojanovski, head of the State Committee for Relations with Religious Communities and Religious Groups, told Forum 18 News Service, as only the Macedonian Orthodox Church can exist in the country. He said the Religion Law allows only one organisation for any one faith. He could not explain why Orthodox Christians could not freely choose their faith. Metropolitan Jovan (Vranisskovski), who heads the Serbian Church in the country, has been convicted of inciting religious hatred, while religious sites have been raided. He complains the state is "in league" with the rival Macedonian Church. "They do not let us perform services, they harass me with these trials, and they do not let foreign Orthodox priests enter or travel through Macedonia," he told Forum 18. An Interior Ministry blacklist reportedly lists more than 20 Serbian Orthodox bishops banned from entering Macedonia.

9 September 2004

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE CONFERENCE ON DISCRIMINATION – A REGIONAL SURVEY

Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.

2 September 2004

COMMENTARY: Away with legal discrimination - Serbia shouldn't follow Austria

The Serbian draft law on religion follows Austria's hastily passed 1998 law in dividing religious communities into different categories with differing legal rights, thus institutionalising religious discrimination, comments Dr. Reinhard Kohlhofer, an Austrian lawyer specialising in religious freedom, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Austrian law is a bad example for Serbia to follow, Dr. Kohlhofer argues, having been severely criticised by international lawyers, and also being the subject of a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case, with a decision expected in the next few months. In a 1993 case involving Greece, the ECtHR ruled that "freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society" and that "the pluralism indissociable from a democratic society .. depends on it." Dr. Kohlhofer goes on to state that there is no justification for states to legally discriminate between or against religious communities, and that democracy demands nothing less than the elimination of all forms of legal discrimination.

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