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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.