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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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".

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.