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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: 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.

KOSOVO: Changes to draft Religion Law continue

Amid pressure from the international community to adopt a religion law ahead of talks on Kosovo's final status, changes continue to be made to drafts of the Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Discussion of the Prime Minister's draft and two other drafts has been postponed until a meeting now due to take place on Wednesday 21 June, when they are planned to be considered as amendments. "I am concerned that there are so many changes each time," Artur Krasniqi, a Protestant representing a coalition of Protestant Churches, told Forum 18. "We fear there will be pressure to insert new discriminatory provisions on registration." Alfons Lentze, a legal advisor to the Assembly, told Forum 18 that "This has been a very difficult issue. We want to see a religious freedom law as soon as possible in accordance with the Plan on Standards."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

SERBIA: Religious freedom survey, August 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Serbia, Forum 18 News Service notes the problems caused by a proposed draft religion bill, religious education in schools, and physical attacks on religious minorities. However, alternative civilian service regulations have been introduced, so conscientious objectors to military service are not now prosecuted. In a listing of attacks on religious minorities in 2003, Forum 18 records that Evangelical-Methodists, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Serbian Evangelicals, Jehovah Witnesses, Lutherans, Romany Pentecostals, Baptists, Hare Krishna devotees, Catholics, and Muslims were all victims of different types of attack in 2003, ranging from hate speech and graffiti to physical assaults. A noted church-state commentator, Mirko Djordevic, has told Forum 18 that "we cannot say that the religious freedom of Serbian citizens is threatened, but different confessions limit each others freedom." Pavel Domonji, from the Helsinki Committee, observed to Forum 18 that "Small religious communities are often under attack. It is probably because they form trans-national communities, where every believer is a member, regardless of their ethnic background."

KOSOVO: Nobody charged for destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries

No-one has yet been charged for organising the violence in March, including the destruction of 30 Orthodox churches. Since 1999, no-one responsible for the destruction of 140 churches has been arrested. There is also some evidence that churches were looted for the black market before their destruction. Kosovo's prime ministerial spokesman refused to admit to Forum 18 News Service that any churches were destroyed before March and said it had not been decided who would protect churches from further attacks. The protection provided by KFOR was variable, with the French and German contingents being particularly criticised by the Serbian Orthodox Church. In contrast, other KFOR contingents, such as the Czechs, Italians and Swedes, risked their troops' lives to provide protection. Captain Jonas Bengtsson of the Swedish contingent told Forum 18 that "It is a miracle no Swedish soldier was badly injured," and commented that "Churches have always been one of the most important things to protect." The Swedes have, since the March violence, stepped up protection for churches they are responsible for.

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