By H. Knox Thames
While the free practice of religion is generally enjoyed in Southeastern Europe, problematic policies exist that run counter to commitments made when countries from the region joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Issues range from discriminatory legal schemes denying small religious communities registration to harsh government actions against unpopular religious groups and their leaders. As will be discussed, having a legal mechanism for religious groups to achieve juridical personhood is important in ensuring religious freedom for all. Furthermore, this does not necessitate the creation of special religion laws, as legal status can be established through tax or corporation laws.
Albanian and Bosnian Examples
Despite shortcomings in other areas, Albania’s system for conferring registration and legal status to religious communities could serve as a model to others in the region. All religious groups with at least five members and meeting minimal criteria may obtain legal and non-profit status under the Law on Associations, the same status given to any applicant group, whether religious or secular. Albania’s neutral approach avoids the problematic entanglements of special religion laws common elsewhere in the region.
Bosnia and Herzegovina missed an opportunity to lead by example, as many parts of its recently passed Law on Freedom of Religion and the Legal Position of Churches and Religious Communities are well constructed, explicitly protecting manifestations of religious belief while limiting the ability of the government to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious group. Unfortunately, the law also contains troubling provisions which include penalties against free speech while setting numerical thresholds for obtaining legal status. For unregistered groups to qualify for official status, they must meet a membership threshold of at least 300 citizens. The law could be brought into harmony with OSCE commitments, should the Bosnian parliament amend the law, either expunging or significantly reducing this numerical requirement.
While there has been marked improvement in recent years, the lack of physical security for minority religious communities and their places of worship as well as ineffective law enforcement and judicial action remain real problems. Police and prosecutors in Bosnia and Herzegovina have proven slow or unwilling to protect minority groups in some areas. The answer is not a specially crafted religion law with novel criminal penalties, but better enforcement of current laws by police and determined prosecutions by authorities.
OSCE Leadership: Bulgaria and Slovenia
Despite Bulgaria’s status as OSCE Chairman-in-Office in 2004, religious freedom conditions took a turn for the worse when, in July, the authorities seized properties used by the alternative Bulgarian Orthodox synod for more than 10 years. The 2002 Law on Religions blatantly favors the Bulgarian Orthodox Church over the alternative Orthodox synod and other religious groups, thereby providing legal cover for the church seizures. While there is no numerical threshold for registration, the legal system established by the law appears open to manipulation and arbitrary decisions. Additionally, the sanctions available under the Law on Religions are also ambiguous yet far-reaching, potentially restricting a variety of religious freedom rights. It is not too late for Bulgarian authorities to erase this dark spot by immediately reinstating to the alternative synod full control of the seized properties until the courts settle the dispute.
The overall situation for religious freedom is good in Slovenia, which became Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE on January 1, 2005. The registration system for religious communities is simple, and there are no numerical thresholds or formal requirements to overcome. While the small Muslim community in Ljubljana has experienced problems in obtaining permission to build a mosque, it appears the matter is being resolved. One city counselor successfully initiated a referendum in May opposing the zoning regulation change to allow the building of the mosque. However, the Constitutional Court found the referendum to be unconstitutional, thereby removing this hurdle to construction. It is hoped there will be no further bureaucratic delays, so construction can begin as Slovenia takes up the OSCE chairmanship.
Law and Practice in Croatia and Macedonia
While the freedom to practice religion is generally respected in Croatia, the Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities passed in July 2002 falls short of OSCE commitments, establishing a discriminatory, tiered system of registration. For a new religious group to enjoy the rights and benefits available with the higher Religious Communities status, it must demonstrate a membership of at least 500 individuals and be registered under the lesser Religious Association status for five years. Benefits explicitly given to Religious Communities include: freedom to operate independently; capacity to determine their internal organization; freedom to conduct religious meetings in their own or leased space; tax exemptions; the right to establish schools; and ability to receive state funding. Considering Croatia’s candidacy for the European Union, current EU members France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Slovenia do not use membership thresholds in conferring registration.
In addition to the excessive numerical threshold and the five-year prohibition on registering new groups as Religious Communities, the law declares that the name and insignia of a religious group may not contain the official names and insignia of other countries. Doing so will cause the denial of registration. In addition, it is unclear under the law whether Religious Communities or Associations may legally conduct meetings in private homes or apartments. To lessen the likelihood of problems in the future and to set a positive example for others, Croatia should correct these deficiencies, as well as eliminate or significantly reduce the 500-member threshold.
The legal framework governing religious freedom in Macedonia is ambiguous, due to Constitutional Court decisions striking down provisions of the 1997 Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups, such as the numerical threshold for registration. Since religious groups are required to register, the lack of a clear mechanism can be problematic. Adding to the confusion, the U.S. State Department reports that the remaining provisions of the religion law are not consistently applied, leading to arbitrary delays in granting registration. The government could easily close this gap by creating simple avenues to obtain equal status either through the civil or administrative code.
In addition to these legal problems, concern exists about the situation surrounding Bishop Jovan (Zoran Vraniskovski). Macedonian officials, in response to the ecclesiastical dispute concerning the status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, have over-reacted to Jovan’s activities on behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Authorities in January 2004 arrested Jovan for conducting a church service in a private apartment. Responding to complaints of neighbors about disturbing the peace is appropriate, but sentencing him to 18 months in jail for “causing national, racial or religious hate, discord and intolerance” is excessive and unjustified. Escalating things further, police officials in October reportedly bulldozed the foundations of a new chapel Jovan’s followers had begun to build, allegedly because local authorities had not received permission to start construction. (There is also concern about reports the government intends to demolish another Serbian Orthodox Church established in the village of Luzani.) Those sympathetic to the larger issues surrounding the Macedonian Orthodox Church and its status should be among the first to defend the rights of others to participate in the church of their choosing. The government, at least, must exhibit more restraint and end these harassments, and also pay reparations for the destroyed buildings.
Problematic Draft Laws Elsewhere
The legal framework for Serbia remains uncertain, since the 1976 communist-era law was abandoned in 1993. A draft religion law circulated earlier this year contained numerous shortcomings, blatantly tilting the playing field in favor of seven “traditional” communities and establishing the numerical threshold of 1000 members for new groups to register. Despite improvements, the new draft micromanages the affairs of religious groups, while making contingent most of the rights and benefits available to religious communities on the meeting of the burdensome 1000-member threshold. For smaller groups, this will result in the serious limitation of their activities; the draft prohibits unregistered groups from renting or owning land for worship, using private apartments for meetings, holding public events, receiving donations or opening schools or orphanages. Registration can be revoked for vague and arbitrary reasons – if a group “destroys family” or “disrupts spiritual integrity . . . for the purpose of . . . spreading its doctrine.” The draft reaches into the internal affairs of religious groups, as all are “obliged” to “inspire understanding” of others and not “spread lies, prejudices or intolerance” against other faiths. In addition, local officials would be empowered to monitor how religious groups use voluntary contributions.
Serbian authorities are urged to seek technical assistance and input from individuals on the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom or Belief, just as their predecessors at the federal, Yugoslav level did roughly two years ago, in order to develop a new draft that comports with international norms and practice. Regarding other issues, a dispute over a Romani church in Leskovac will be resolved when municipal authorities fulfill a pledge to provide some of the land nearby for an alternative site. The State Department reports the Belgrade Islamic community continues to have problems obtaining land and government approval to open an Islamic cemetery. In addition, in response to the burning of two mosques in March, reports indicate that 12 people of the 100 plus arrested have been charged with criminal offenses, and news of convictions should be forthcoming.
There is also concern about religious freedom in Kosovo, as reportedly only three individuals have been found guilty for their involvement in the March violence that resulted in the destruction or damage of 30 Serbian Orthodox Churches and monasteries. The two-year prison sentences issued were suspended, making the penalties nothing more than a slap on the wrist. In addition, recent legislative initiatives are troubling, as the latest draft of the Law on Religious Freedom and Legal Status of Religious Communities falls short of international standards. The drafting process has been closed to minority religious communities, as well. The comments of minority communities should be actively sought and fully considered during the public debate.
Among its many problematic portions, the draft creates the preferential status of a Religious Community, while providing virtually no rights for the lesser Union of Natural Persons. Small or new groups are prevented from obtaining Religious Community status, as they must have 500 members and have been operating in Kosovo for at least five years, but it is unclear how that time is tolled. Only Religious Communities can publish materials, either in print or electronically, or obtain funds from voluntary contributions. The draft unduly limits speech and activities of all groups, stating they shall not “disrupt other religious communities, or citizens without religious convictions, in public manifestation of religion or other conviction.” The government may also select certain religious groups to participate in the Committee for Relations with Religious Communities, thereby giving favored faiths an inappropriate degree of oversight or veto over other religious groups. Lastly, for existing Religious Communities, the law would make rights contingent on reregistering successfully within six months of passage.
There is growing concern by reports coming out of Romania regarding a new draft religion law being reviewed by a parliamentary subcommittee. Reliable sources indicate this legislation is based on the highly flawed 1999 draft, which set the numerical threshold for registration at 0.5% of Romania’s population, or over 100,000 people. If reports are true, it is deeply concerning that the parliament would resurrect this seriously problematic bill rather than starting afresh and incorporating the views of interested Romanian religious communities. The OSCE Panel of Experts would be willing to provide technical assistance if invited by the government, and such a gesture would help ensure the legislation upholds all OSCE commitments on religious freedom.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.