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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.