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Religious intolerance

In Serbia/Montenegro

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These articles were reprinted from Forum 18 News Service. F18News has a web site at: They promote the implementation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and concentrates upon gross and open breaches of religious freedom, especially situations where the lives of individuals or groups are threatened, and where the right to gather based upon belief is threatened. They promote:

  • 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.


A new Religion Law came into force on 2006-MAY-04. It recognizes only the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Lutheran Church, Reformed Church, Evangelical Christian Church (another Lutheran Church), the Islamic and Jewish communities as "traditional" faith groups. All others are heavily discriminated against. The new law conflicts with the European Convention on Human Rights which was ratified by the Parliament of Serbia and Montenegro in 2004. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, and the Serbian President's have objected and have requested changes to the law.

Violent attacks against religious communities continue. The primary victims are Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Serbian Orthodox churches.


Forum 18 reported in 2004 that a "discriminatory" religious bill was being proposed for Serbia/Montenegro:

Religious minorities and human rights activists have told Forum 18 News Service that a draft religion bill is discriminatory. If passed, the bill would give full rights only to religious communities recognized by the parliament of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941. These communities are the Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Slovak and Hungarian/German Lutherans, and the Hungarian Reformed Church. They will receive substantial state financial support and the right to perform marriages, burials and to maintain marriage registers. Other religious communities would be denied these rights and have strongly criticized the bill, the Baptists pointing out to Forum 18 that the only communities recognized are essentially mono-ethnic, and so the bill discriminates against "multi-ethnic" religious communities and is thus un-constitutional. Milan Radulovic, Minister of Religion, has dismissed criticisms as "communist".

2004: Details of draft bill:

Many of Serbia's religious minorities and human rights activists have condemned as "discriminatory" a draft bill on Religious Freedoms, Churches, Religious Communities and Religious Associations that would give full rights only to seven "traditional" religious communities, above all the Serbian Orthodox Church, leaving other religious communities with lesser rights. Serbia's Ministry of Religion forwarded the draft bill at the beginning of July to registered religious entities, requesting their responses by 2004-AUG-10.

The Adventists have complained to Forum 18 News Service that this bill is about "religious non-freedoms", while the Baptists pointed out that all the religious communities recognized by this bill are essentially mono-ethnic, and that the bill therefore discriminates against "multi-ethnic" religious communities and is thus un-constitutional. Several NGOs, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, joined the criticism, as did one political party, the Social Democratic Union.

But at a 28 July press conference in the capital Belgrade, Milan Radulovic, the Minister of Religion, dismissed all these criticisms as "communist". The Ministry asserted in a press release issued on 6 July, when the bill was sent to religious communities, that the text had been prepared taking into consideration "the rule of law and defining relations between the state and church under a single law and in a democratic manner".

The draft bill recognizes seven religious communities and Churches as "traditional", thus according them the most rights. The Serbian Orthodox Church is given the status of "primus inter pares" - first among equals. The remaining faith communities are the [Roman} Catholic Church, the Islamic Faith Community, the Jewish Religious Community, Slovak Lutheran and Hungarian/German Lutheran Churches, and the Hungarian Reformed Church.

The draft bill gives these Churches and religious communities substantial rights in social security, pensions, salary support for communities in remote areas, access to local communities' building funds, rights to perform marriages, burials and to maintain marriage registers.

The status of a "traditional" faith is given to those communities recognized by parliament in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941). Although some other minor churches were recognized at that time, including the Baptists and the Mennonites, they are not given the status of a "traditional" faith in this draft.

Zarko Djordjevic, pastor of the Baptist Church in the northern town of Novi Sad, reported that the Baptist Human Rights Committee has already met and drawn up its views. "Except for the first five articles, this draft bill shows exclusivity, is contradictory, diverges from existing social practice and context, and some of the norms are even against the Constitution of Serbia and Montenegro," he told Forum 18 from Novi Sad on 29 July. "To cite just one example: the category of religious association is a new name for those who were earlier pejoratively named 'sects'. So this draft gives legitimacy to something that is not legal."

Pastor Djordjevic said that the Baptist Human Rights Committee has sent its opinion to the Ministry, but pledged it will carry on campaigning against the draft bill. "We will continue to contact various NGOs and our international faith family, as well as politicians and people's deputies in parliament."

Their opposition was echoed at a meeting on 25 July in Belgrade of representatives of the Adventist Church, Baptist Church, Christ's Spiritual Church, Church of Christ, Reformed Adventist Movement, Free churches, Church of the Evangelical Christians, Serbian Evangelical Alliance and the Association for Religious Freedom. "This draft has shortcomings, is full of inadequacies, is not precise and is unclear, with its undefined and inadequately-defined concepts and terms," a joint statement adopted at the meeting declared categorically.

These churches complained that the draft bill "should be forwarded to ALL registered religious communities" and also that the period for a public debate is "unusually and unacceptably short for a public debate" and comes in the middle of summer holidays. They requested that the government withdraw the draft bill from public debate.

"We think this bill is actually about non-freedom," Miodrag Zivanovic, president of the Adventists' South-East European Union, told Forum 18 in Belgrade on 28 July. "We expected to be in the light, given the democratic changes across the whole of society, but this bill brings us back to a dark past. We Adventists are in the greatest danger, but everyone is in danger." He pointed out that the Churches termed "traditional" in the draft bill are in some other countries minority churches and warned that it will cause divisions. "I heard that some Protestants spoke on our behalf - they are content because they are in a privileged position. They cannot speak on our behalf, because we will not be privileged."

Describing at least 30 of the bill's 61 articles as "discriminatory", Zivanovic too said it should be withdrawn, adding that his Church will seek broad support to oppose the bill. "We consider the state to be a state of all of its citizens, but this bill takes care of only some of its believers. We consider that divisions are not good."

The Assemblies of God president in Serbia and Montenegro, Pastor Mane Koruga, complained that although his denomination is known worldwide, "in Serbia we are continually regarded as a sect", together with the Baptists, Pentecostals and other Protestant Churches. "The proposal states that we will not have the status of a church but only that of a citizens' organization which has nothing to do with the Christian faith," he told Forum 18 in Belgrade on 20 July. "This new proposal will require us to de-register as a church and re-register as a citizens' organization. We have been registered with the previous government as a legitimate church since 1952. We cannot allow this new government to destroy our freedom of religion."

But the three Protestant churches listed in the draft bill as "traditional" issued a public statement on 27 July declaring that "the draft bill is, according to our opinion, good in essence and we do not ask for its withdrawal". Two bishops and one superintendent of the two Lutheran and a Reformed church dismissed Evangelicals: "We believe that signatories of that release (25 July 2004) do not belong to any of the listed Protestant churches".

"You see," continues Pastor Djordjevic of the Baptist Church, "all these churches that are named 'traditional' are mono-ethnic. The Serbian Orthodox Church belongs to Serbs, the Catholic Church to Hungarians and Croats, the Islamic community to Bosniaks in Sandzak, etc. This bill does not recognize the existence of multi-ethnic religious communities like Baptists, Pentecostals and others. It is indeed discriminatory."

At least two other religious minority communities told Forum 18 that international lawyers are already working on this issue on their behalf, and that they will soon go public with their findings.

The Belgrade-based Association for Religious Freedom also issued a statement complaining it was "discriminatory to name only some so-called traditional churches and religious communities". The Association requested the Ministry of Religion to add a preamble to the bill defining the terms "church", "religious community" and "religious association".

In a separate criticism of the draft, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia singled out Article 17, which would grant the same immunity to priests and church dignitaries as enjoyed by parliamentary deputies and judges. "Immunity granted to church officers flagrantly violates the principle of separation of church and state," it declared on 23 July. "Should such a provision be adopted, it would not only invest churches and, in particular, the Serbian Orthodox Church as the predominant one with the attribute of a civil authority, but would also be an unprecedented move in the jurisprudence and legal practice of contemporary states that, apart from not recognizing an immunity as such, tend to annul or curb immunity of state officials."

Church historian and sociologist Mirko Djordjevic told the Belgrade-based Beta news agency that the draft bill represents "the clericalisation of society and that should be rejected", fearing that this would give the Serbian Orthodox Church "the leading role in society".

The Social Democratic Union requested that the Ministry withdraw and totally rewrite the bill because of its "retrograde solutions" and breaching of constitutional principles. "All religious communities, political parties, citizens' associations and the whole public of Serbia are invited to participate in a public debate regarding the legislative regulation of one of the basic human rights."

Serbia has not had a law on religious communities since 1993, when the previous 1976 law was abolished as inadequate. Attempts to pass simpler and more liberal bills failed, both in the Serbian parliament in 2001 and in the federal parliament in 2002, though these too had been criticized by minority faiths.

2006: Religion law passed:

Forum 18 published a new release on the new religion law on 2006-MAY-23:

After the rushed adoption of Serbia's controversial new Religion Law, uncertainty surrounds the regulations to apply it. According to article 47 of the Law, the Religion Ministry must prepare these "within 90 days of this Law coming into force" (on 4 May). The Ministry has told Forum 18 News Service that it is actively working on these regulations, but the details are not yet known. Once the regulations are prepared and implemented, religious communities can apply for registration.

Also still unclear are the practical implications of being designated as a "confessional community" under Article 17 of the Law. Communities so designated are the "Christian Baptist Church, Christian Adventist Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Church, evangelical Christian churches and other religious organizations registered on the basis of the Law on the legal status of religious communities (State Gazette of the Federal National Republic of Yugoslavia no. 22/1953) and the Law on the legal status of religious communities (State Gazette of the Socialist Republic of Serbia no. 44/1977)."

The rushed passage of the Religion Law was marked by much confusion as to what was in the Law, and religious communities - contrary to the claims of the Religion Ministry - and citizens were unaware of its exact contents

On signing the Law, President Boris Tadic acknowledged that it "is not absolutely in agreement with the European Convention on Human Rights which was ratified by the Parliament of Serbia and Montenegro in 2004, but that it is possible with some amendments and additions to remove all its deficiencies." Tadic also stated that he was requiring the National Assembly to amend the Law "in an urgent vote"

Douglas Wake, Deputy Head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Mission to Serbia and Montenegro said that "unfortunately" no further changes were made in the text of the Law after the OSCE and the Council of Europe issued a joint statement expressing their concerns on 25 April. "Those concerns about the Law, which was subsequently signed and entered into force, remain valid," he told Forum 18 on 12 May.

Despite President Tadic's acknowledgement that the Law breaks the European Convention on Human Rights, the protests of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, as well as and the Serbian President's request for changes, Forum 18 has learnt that the Religion Ministry is not preparing any amendments to the Law. Jelena Savovic, secretary to Religion Minister Milan Radulovic, told Forum 18 on 22 May that "the Ministry is not preparing any amendments and no-one has sent any amendments to the Ministry".

Radulovic's office told Forum 18 on 23 May that he had no comments on either criticism of the Law by the OSCE and Council of Europe, or on President Tadic's request for amendments to the Law. Radulovic also refused to comment on what parliamentary procedures should be used to amend the Law.

There are distinct financial advantages to being registered by the state. The seven "traditional" religious communities - the only communities to be automatically registered by the Law - do not have to pay Value Added Tax and are able to receive financial help from the state, for example with salaries, pensions and health insurance. The Religion Law recognizes only the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Lutheran Church, Reformed Church, Evangelical Christian Church (another Lutheran Church), the Islamic and Jewish communities as "traditional."

All other religious communities have to pay Value Added Tax and will not automatically receive financial help for the state. In addition, these communities are regarded for tax purposes as businesses, which makes telephone and electricity costs expensive. In 2005, for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses were regarded as a business even though they have no employees.

The Serbian Orthodox Church - the majority religious community - told Forum 18 on 23 May that it is not making statements until the current meeting of the Holy Synod is over.

Reaction to the Religion Law among religious minorities varies. "I have seen the new religious law and I must say that I am very concerned," Fr Seraphim (Branislav Zorz), the only Old Catholic priest in Serbia, told Forum 18 on 10 May. He showed Forum 18 documents proving legal recognition from 1874 under the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, which recognition was renewed in 1923 under the then Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

"If later our bishop received a medal from Marshal Tito, it is not logical that we should have to register as if we have never existed," Fr Seraphim told Forum 18. "Our church building in Belgrade is owned by the government, so how could we have used this if we were not registered as a church?" He said his church has "no problem" proving that it has the required number of believers - 0.001 percent of adult resident citizens or foreign citizens with permanent residence, i.e. 75 people under the 2002 census. "But it is nonsense that after more than 80 years of existence in Serbia we should have to prove that we exist."

Interestingly, the first legal recognition documents quoted in the Law for three of the "traditional communities" - from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes - post-date the Old Catholics' legal recognition documents. These are those for the Jewish Community (from 1929), the Reformed Church (from 1930) and the Islamic Community (also from 1930). The Old Catholics' legal recognition also pre-dates that of all the "confessional communities" named in the Law.

The Baptists are one of the "confessional communities" that article 17 of the Law designates. However, this uncertain status does not reassure Baptists. "According to this Law, we de facto do not exist at all. We are still not sure what documents we will need for registration [in the Religion Ministry regulations being prepared]," Dane Vidovic, a Baptist pastor and a member of the Freedom and Justice Commission of the Baptist World Alliance, told Forum 18 on 12 May. "The Law is not bad just because of some articles in the Law, but the whole concept is bad."

Buddhists in Serbia have four centres - Belgrade, Novi Sad, Subotica and Zrenjanin - with about 1,000 members. Dalibor Jovanovic from the Belgrade Buddhist Center told Forum 18 on 9 May that "the Religion Law is not perfect, but it gives us the possibility to work, so we will register according to the new Law."

Anglicans in Belgrade are a mixed community of expatriates and Serbs. "We are accepted by the Serbian Orthodox Church as a sister church even if we are not registered with the authorities," Fr Robin Fox of St. Mary's Anglican Church, who has served in Belgrade since August 2004, told Forum 18 on 9 May. "We worship in a Roman Catholic chapel and I think that we will continue to work without registration. We do not proselytise and our attendees are mainly foreigners who for longer or shorter periods live and work here."

"We have a very negative opinion about this Law. We believe that religious communities have a place in society, but not in this way," Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, told Forum 18 on 19 May. "This Law legalizes a superior position for the Serbian Orthodox Church and we object to the way the Law treats the communities not described as 'traditional'," she continued. "It opens the way to possible manipulation of the 'non-traditional' communities."

Biserko was puzzled as to why the government was in "such a hurry" to pass the Law and why it was "so deaf" to the complaints of international organizations and NGOs. "I believe that the pressure of international organizations - including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the US Congress - is needed."

At least one official openly criticizes the Law. "The law approved by the Serbian Parliament is very bad and cannot compare with similar laws in, for example, Croatia and Bosnia," Slobodan Karanovic, secretary for religious freedom in the Federal [Serbia and Montenegro] Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, and former Yugoslav Religion Minister, told Forum 18 on 22 May. "It should be amended."

He points to Article 21, which says that churches cannot be registered "whose name contains a name or part of a name expressing the identity of a Church, religious community or religious organisation which is already entered in the Register". "So any church with the word church in its name can veto another church being registered," Karanovic complained. "I cannot believe that the Law was prepared in so unprofessional a way."

Vidan Hadzi-Vidanovic of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights says his Centre plans to challenge the Law in the Constitutional Court. "But we all know how slowly the Constitutional Court works if there is not very heavy public pressure on it, which I do not think will happen in this case," he told Forum 18 on 8 May. He hopes that the challenge may be made by the end of May.

"We will need help to ensure that an appeal to the Constitutional Court does not end up in some file," Zarko Djordjevic, General Secretary of the Serbian Baptist Union, told Forum 18 on 12 May. Zdravko Sordjan of the Belgrade-based Centre for Tolerance and Inter-religious Relations told Forum 18 the same day of his concerns that the Constitutional Court can be slow and not very effective.

Serbia's National Assembly began last week to discuss a discriminatory draft law to restore or provide compensation for religious property confiscated after 1945. Religious communities and NGOs have also expressed concern about the provisions of the draft Restitution Law, which has been explicitly linked by the Speaker of the National Assembly to the Religion Law

Vidovic of the Baptist Church told Forum 18 of his concern about getting back church property confiscated by the Communist authorities. "How we will apply to get them back if parliament approves the Restitution Law but we are not registered under the Religion Law?"

Parliamentary discussion has already revealed pressure for discrimination to be increased. Ivica Dacic from former President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party demanded that Catholic and Lutheran church properties should not be returned. Some are concerned that the Restitution Law will reinforce the discriminatory attitude towards religious minorities exemplified in Religion Minister Radulovic's often-repeated comment that "being equal does not mean to be the same".

2007-OCT: Religious violence continues at a high level:

Forum 18 reports that:

"As in previous years ... few of those who attack religious minorities are ever identified. Zivota Milanovic, the only Hare Krishna devotee in Jagodina, has been the victim of repeated stabbing attacks from July 2005 without the police taking any effective action to identify and punish the perpetrator. Forum 18 has learnt that nine months after the Evangelical church in Kraljevo and the Adventist church in Stapari were attacked with Molotov cocktails, police have still not found the attackers, despite calls on the police to do so by Serbia's President Boris Tadic."

"Religious minorities have complained to Forum 18 that even when perpetrators are identified, charges -- if any -- are often minimal, especially if the attackers are young people. Police and the courts often respond that 'the kids were drunk' and the attackers usually end up with just a small fine."

"Police appear to be unwilling to protect members of religious minorities or religious sites at risk of attack, even if they have already been attacked. Muhamed Zukurlic, the Mufti of Sandzak and leader of Serbia's Muslim community, complained of five death threats between December 2006 and March 2007 which forced him to start using a private bodyguard since the police did not find it necessary to offer protection. ..."

"Places of worship of the [Serbian] 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." 4

2008-DEC: Religious attacks reduced in numbers:

Forum 18 reports that their survey of violent attacks against Serbia's religious communities covering 2007-SEP to 2008-OCT reports a reduction in violence. They state:

"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.
"Serbia's desire to join the European Union, along with politicians placing greater weight on Serbia becoming a more open country, appears to be influencing popular attitudes, and hence the possibility of attacks. The current government under Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic is seen as pro-European and does not see all that is not Serbian or Orthodox as automatically anti-Serbian. Example of these changes in social attitudes were seen in media reporting of attacks which took place on the night of 21 February 2008, during rioting which followed a government-organised demonstration against Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. Media reports in 2008 have been notably less hostile to religious minorities, and less prone to describe them as 'dangerous sects'. "
When caught, the perpetrators are generally only charged with disturbing public order -- a minor crime. In only a few cases have prosecutions been made under Article 317, "instigating or exacerbating national, racial and religious hatred," which can result in an 8 year sentence. 5

References used:

  1. "Serbia / Montenegro: 'Discriminatory' religion bill," Forum 18 News Service, F18News, 2004-JUL-30, at:
  2. Branko Bjelajac, "SERBIA/MONTENEGRO: 'Discriminatory' religion bill," Forum 18 News Service, at:
  3. Drasko Djenovic, "SERBIA: No changes to controversial Religion Law," Forum 18 News Service, 2006-MAY-23, at:
  4. Drasko Djenovic, "Serbia: Violence continues against religious communities," Forum 18 News Service,  2007-OCT-07, at:
  5. Drasko Djenovic, "Violent attacks continuing, but mainly declining," Forum 18 News Service,  2008-DEC-03, at:

Copyright © 2004 to 2008 by Forum 18. Used by permission.
Originally posted on: 2004-JUL-31
Latest update: 200

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