Summary paragraph: The government took steps to counter radicalization and violent extremism related to religion. In February the Special Prosecution Office (SPRK) filed an indictment at the Basic Court of Pristina against Shefqet Krasniqi, the former head imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, for inciting terrorism. Parliament considered a government-recommended bill that would allow religious groups to register and acquire legal status so they would be able to conduct business. Parliament approved the law at a first reading on November 29; it expected to hold a second reading in early 2018. Some school officials applied a mandatory administrative instruction prohibiting students from wearing religious garb on school property. According to some religious communities, the government continued to respond to societal violence and vandalism against several religious minority communities. Religious minorities, particularly Protestants, however, said municipalities failed to act on requests to build churches and cemeteries and to assist them with zoning issues. Several long-standing disputes over ownership of religious property remained unresolved. The police unit for the Protection of Religious and Cultural Heritage continued to provide countrywide security to religious and cultural sites; however, theft and vandalism continued at some SOC sites. The government continued to provide some funding to Islamic education in BIK madrassahs; it did not fund religious education for any other religious group. Most ethnic Serbs attending Serbian-language public schools elected to enroll in Serbian Orthodox religious classes. The Serbian government funded salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors, and the Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers and staff in these schools. The BIK reported incidents of employment discrimination against devout Muslims, especially in the education sector, citing the March dismissal of a public school teacher in Prizren who refused to remove her headscarf at work. Muslim community leaders reported discriminatory practices in government hiring; stating applicants for civil service jobs were sometimes rejected based on religious belief. The government continued its Interfaith Kosovo program, and officials and representatives from all of the principal religious communities attended the consecration of the Catholic St. Theresa Cathedral in Pristina.
On February 27, the SPRK filed an indictment at the Basic Court of Pristina against Shefqet Krasniqi, the former head imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina. The SPRK charged Krasniqi with inciting terrorism and propagating national, racial, and religious intolerance. According to the statement issued by the SPRK, Krasniqi used his sermons and social media to urge individuals to travel to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq and to commit acts of terror. Krasniqi was originally arrested in 2014 and was dismissed from the Grand Mosque in 2015. Despite his dismissal from the Grand Mosque, Krasniqi continued to preach his messages on television, radio, and social media.
In December the Pristina Basic Court heard testimony in the trial of four imams, two charged with committing terrorist acts and two charged with “inciting national, racial, religious, or ethnic hatred.” Media observers expected a ruling in 2018.
Religious leaders continued to advocate adoption of a draft law that would provide a legal mechanism through which religious groups could gain legal status. This would allow them to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities. The Bektashi community also requested such a law state it is a community constituting part of the historical heritage and cultural and social life of the country. Although representatives of many religious groups said they had found alternative methods to conduct some of their business affairs, most reported difficulties in registering property and vehicles, opening bank accounts, and paying taxes on employee salaries. Some religious communities opened bank accounts that were not in their communities’ names, and the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church received a tax accounting number from the government in order to pay taxes as if it were a business. Some communities said it was difficult to undertake basic financial tasks and they were taxed as for-profit businesses.
Some school officials continued to apply a mandatory administrative instruction previously issued by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology that prohibits primary and secondary students from wearing religious garb on school property. According to the BIK and other Muslim community leaders, public schools occasionally sent home students who insisted on wearing headscarves while attending classes. Members of the BIK reported some public schools forced girls to remove headscarves in order to study in these schools. The Ombudsperson Institution did not receive any reports of a school barring students wearing religious garb, such as headscarves, from attending classes.
In December the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) paid back rent to the SOC for the ACA’s long-standing use of an SOC-owned building and parking lot in Pristina. This ended a six-year stalemate in which the ACA had refused to implement a prime ministerial decision mandating payment.
Religious groups again said government authorities did not take steps to ensure municipalities treated religious organizations equally on property issues, in particular with regard to churches and cemeteries. Although the law specifies that municipalities hold title to cemeteries and are responsible for their upkeep, in practice, some municipalities allowed religious groups to take de facto possession of public cemeteries.
Protestants said most municipalities had not granted land for cemeteries nor addressed most of their requests to build churches on land the community owned. The Gllogovc/Glogovac Municipality granted land to the Protestant community for a cemetery and a church, and the community was working with the municipality to implement the decision.
Pristina’s city council created the country’s first dedicated cemetery for members of the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) on April 24. The vote affirmed the council’s initial February 15 decision permitting the cemetery, which the MESP had sought to block on procedural grounds. The municipal assembly’s agreement includes the provision of trees and fencing on six hectares (15 acres) of public land adjacent to the city’s Jewish cemetery. Prior to this decision, the city’s several thousand KPEC members were buried in the municipal cemetery. Although a public entity, the BIK unofficially controlled the municipal cemetery. The BIK did not allow Christian crosses on graves, charged a fee to non-Muslims for burial services, and in some cases blocked Christian funeral rites. Pristina’s Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities continued to use separate public cemeteries.
Existing Jewish cemeteries were reportedly in disrepair. Members of the Jewish community said they lacked the resources to maintain their cemeteries and local authorities did not maintain these public sites as required by law. The Serbian Orthodox cemetery in Pristina was reportedly also in disrepair and not maintained by municipal authorities. The SOC cited member displacement from the area as a reason for its inability to care adequately for the cemetery. In both cases, the Municipality of Pristina denied these cemeteries were in disrepair.
Although the Municipal Assembly of Pristina agreed in November 2016 to issue a building permit to the Messiah Evangelical Church for a house of worship on land the church had purchased, the MESP had not issued a final permit by year’s end. Municipal authorities had denied a permit to the church for more than a decade.
By the end of the year, the government still had not created the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, which was supposed to decide on the reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovica/Mitrovice North. BIK leadership continued to advocate for the reconstruction of the mosque, which Serb forces destroyed in 1999.
On July 25, the Pristina Municipal Assembly reaffirmed the validity of a 2012 permit for the construction of a “grand mosque” in the city. The decision overturned a 2015 stay on the permit following citizen complaints that the plans did not match the Dardania neighborhood’s existing aesthetic as required by local regulations. In the July meeting, the assembly described the 2015 decision as an invalid reading of local statute. The mosque would be the largest in the Balkans, according to plans.
In 2016 the Pristina Municipality approved a request by the Beit Israel nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide assistance in constructing a synagogue. By October 20, however, the municipality had not provided the assistance, and Beit Israel criticized it for not following through on its approval.
A 2016 MCYS permit denial for the reconstruction of St. Nicholas Church in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren remained in place, although MCYS Minister Kujtim Gashi pledged to address the issue according to the law. The monastery’s only church was destroyed in 1999, and the St. Nicholas Church was destroyed at the end of the 16th century. According to some IMC members, former MCYS Minister Kujtim Shala’s refusal to issue the permit for reconstruction prompted the SOC to stop participating in the IMC. Although the IMC’s charter calls for meetings every two months concerning safeguarding religious and cultural sites, the group did not formally meet during the year. Due to the lack of a permit, municipal inspectors ordered the SOC to halt construction on several occasions in 2016. The SOC stated the institute’s denial of the permit came after a legal deadline, after which the municipality should have allowed the construction to proceed automatically. Notwithstanding the application, the SOC had full discretion to manage its property based on Annex V of the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo, which covers religious and cultural heritage issues.
The Pristina Municipality, citing the lack of a construction permit, continued to prevent Serbian Orthodox monks from cleaning and making light repairs at the unfinished St. Saviors Church after vandals set fire to it in 2016. Pristina officials continued to question SOC ownership of the property and to claim a construction permit was necessary to undertake any work inside the church, including painting over graffiti.
Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision confirming the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that more than 24 hectares (59 acres) of land should be returned to the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery. The ruling legally ended the SOC’s dispute with a defunct state-owned enterprise from the Yugoslav era and the municipality of Decan/Decani. The Constitutional Court’s decision rejected the 2015 finding of the Supreme Court’s Appellate Panel that had sought to return jurisdiction of the case to the Basic Court in Decan/Decani. The Mayor of Decan/Decani, Rasim Selmanaj, continued throughout the year to refer to the decision as unacceptable. The judicial system did not hold him or other municipal officials to account for failing to implement the Constitutional Court decision. The Kosovo Cadastral Agency agreed to hear an appeal of the case, which legal experts said was illegal since the Constitutional Court had already issued a ruling. Italian Kosovo Force troops continued to provide fixed security at the monastery.
On June 30, the Kosovo Privatization Agency’s Board of Directors removed two properties belonging to Visoki Decani Monastery from its list of former state-owned enterprises slated for privatization. The decision was in keeping with the Constitutional Court’s ruling confirming the monastery’s ownership of the property.
In November the Appeals Court of Pristina upheld a lower court decision to dismiss the University of Pristina’s 2012 request to annul a 1991 land donation by the Serbian government to the SOC, which would have enabled demolition of Christ the Savior Church on the university’s campus. The court ruled only on procedure, not on the merits of the complaint. The university filed another lawsuit soon after the Appeals Court ruling.
An appeal by the Municipality of Pristina of the Basic Court’s 2015 ruling that the Catholic Church owned property adjacent to the Mother Teresa Cathedral remained pending at year’s end.
The SOC expressed concern that the MCYS did not consult with it on a draft law on cultural heritage that it said could annul the SOC’s legally guaranteed autonomy and preclude it from independently deciding upon the restoration and renovation of its buildings. At year’s end, the MCYS had not finished drafting the law. In August the MCYS had issued an administrative instruction that the SOC believed could compromise property rights protected in Annex V of the Ahtisaari Plan.
During the year, the MCYS completed development of the new cultural heritage strategy for 2017-27. The SOC said the strategy strengthened the statutory basis for cooperation between the government and the SOC.
The police unit for specialized protection of cultural and religious heritage sites continued to provide countrywide security to religious and cultural sites, providing 24-hour security at 24 sites around the country. Despite this protection, theft and vandalism continued at SOC sites, primarily outside the SPZ, where police did not provide special protection. The Ministry of Culture said it requested increased support from local governments on protection of religious heritage sites. According to the SOC and the Protestant community, however, local governments sometimes failed to implement laws or court verdicts protecting the rights of religious groups.
The central government continued to provide some funding to Islamic education in BIK madrassahs in Pristina, Prizren, and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some members of other religious groups and secular representatives said they were concerned because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.
The government worked with the BIK and civil society groups to combat violent extremism. As part of the government’s strategy, the BIK held sessions in its madrassahs and Islamic studies facilities that urged students not to fall prey to extremism.
Ethnic Serbs, Gorani, Croatians, and some Roma attended Serbian-language public schools that followed a curriculum designed by the Serbian government, based on municipal education laws and in coordination with the education ministry. Restrictions on religious education did not apply to these public schools. Most ethnic Serbs elected to enroll in Serbian Orthodox religious classes instead of civic education. The Serbian government funded the salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors. The Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers and staff in Serbian-language schools.
The media reported pressure from the Turkish government to close schools associated with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, but the government refused to do so. Citing a lack of evidence, the government refused an October request by the Turkish government to extradite a Gulenist follower on charges related to the attempted 2016 coup in Turkey.
The Water Regulatory Agency continued to waive water utility fees for religious buildings belonging to the five “traditional” religious communities, in accordance with the law. As in past years, the agency failed to grant a waiver to the Protestant community, with no explanation.
The BIK reported incidents of employment discrimination against devout Muslims, particularly in the education sector.
On July 29, nationalist party Vetevendosje (VV) mayoral candidate Fisnik Korenica posted on Facebook that Israel would soon be “vanished from the earth” in response to incidents in Jerusalem. After receiving domestic and international criticism, including from President Hashim Thaci, Prime Ministerial Advisor Halil Matoshi, and VV President Visar Ymeri, he deleted the post and apologized.
Despite a decision by the president announced in November 2016 to prohibit the sale and distribution of anti-Semitic books, by the end of the year the government had taken no administrative action to implement the decision.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs cancelled the 2017 International Interfaith Conference in favor of a larger event in 2018 to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the country’s independence. The most recent Interfaith Conference was in 2016.
On September 5, high-level government officials and representatives from the principal religious communities attended the consecration of St. Theresa Catholic Cathedral in Pristina. President Thaci called the cathedral a symbol of religious tolerance.
In an example of government engagement with religious groups, in January the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) donated bedding for the Serbian Orthodox Church to distribute to local families in need. The KSF promised such support, regardless of the beneficiaries’ religion and ethnicity, would continue. In March the NGO Beit Israel, in partnership with the KSF and Public Enterprise Hortikultura, cleaned the graves at the Jewish cemetery in Pristina.