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Montenegro

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It specifies there is no state religion and stipulates equality and freedom for all religious communities. The law prohibits religious discrimination and hate speech. Religious groups, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), continued to state the laws governing their legal status were inadequate. On December 27, parliament passed the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities. President Milo Djukanovic signed the law on December 28. The SOC strongly criticized the law, which stipulates religious property lacking clear ownership and that falls under the pre-1918 “cultural heritage” of the state may become state property. Although the government repeatedly stated it had no intention of confiscating SOC property but rather intends to resolve century-old questions regarding the country’s religious and state identity before its 1918 loss of independence to Serbia, hundreds of thousands of SOC believers throughout the country protested, largely peacefully, the law almost daily since its passing. There were isolated incidents of violence against the police in some of the demonstrations, accompanied by online incitements to violence. Police sometimes prevented Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and SOC members from simultaneously engaging in religious activities at Orthodox sites, citing concerns over potential clashes. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic commented on a long-lasting controversy surrounding an SOC church on Mt. Rumija, saying to SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, “Do you really think that the state does not have the power to stop and knock down your illegal interventions? We can, and we can do it in one day, in one night. The baptistery and the church on Mt. Rumija, and all other churches which you build without the agreement of the state.” Markovic added the government did not wish to do this, wanting to instead to come to an agreement via dialogue. The SOC said the Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued to deny visas to its clergy. The government maintained its policy of not restituting religious properties confiscated by the Yugoslav communist government.

The SOC stated the predominantly Muslim residents of Gusinje municipality blocked it from holding religious ceremonies on the foundations of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog in Martinici and vandals destroyed and threw into the river a cross the SOC had left at the ruins of the church. The SOC and the MOC continued to dispute ownership of Orthodox sites in the country, most of which are held by the SOC, for which the MOC said ownership rights were wrongfully transferred.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials met with government and religious representatives to discuss relations between the government and religious groups, particularly with regard to the new religion law. In May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with representatives of different religious communities to discuss interfaith tolerance and moderation. During a visit in November, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with religious leaders from the Orthodox, Catholic, Islamic, and Jewish communities. The Ambassador hosted a discussion for the Ambassador at Large on the new religion law with participants from a wide diversity of religious communities and the government, the first such discussion of its kind. Embassy representatives discussed issues of religious freedom and tolerance with the principal faith groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 612,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 72 percent of the population is Orthodox, generally belonging to either the SOC or MOC, though the census does not differentiate between Orthodox groups. Local media estimate the SOC accounts for 70 percent of the Orthodox population, while the MOC makes up the remaining 30 percent. The census reports 19.1 percent of the population is Muslim, 3.4 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.2 percent atheist. Additionally, 2.6 percent of respondents did not indicate a religion, and several other groups, including Seventh-day Adventists (registered locally as the Christian Adventist Church), Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other Christians, and agnostics, together account for less than 1 percent of the population. According to press estimates, the Jewish community numbers approximately 400.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: ethnic Montenegrins and ethnic Serbs are predominantly associated with Orthodoxy, ethnic Albanians with Islam or Catholicism, and ethnic Croats with the Catholic Church. Many Bosniaks (ethnic Bosnians who are Muslim) and other Muslims live along the eastern and northern borders with Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as well as the right to change religion. It guarantees the freedom of all individuals to express their religion in public and private, alone or collectively, through prayer, preaching, custom, or rites, and states individuals shall not be obliged to declare their religious beliefs. The constitution states the freedom to express religious beliefs may be restricted only if required to protect the life and health of the public, peace and order, or other rights guaranteed by the constitution. It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities in religious activities and affairs. The constitution permits courts to prevent propagation of religious hatred or discrimination and prohibits political and other organizations from instigating religious hatred and intolerance.

By law, it is a crime to cause and spread religious hatred, which includes publication of information inciting hatred or violence against persons based on religion, the mockery of religious symbols, or the desecration of monuments, memorial tablets, or tombs. Violators may receive prison sentences ranging from six months to 10 years. If the violation is committed through the misuse of an official position or authority or leads to violence, or if the courts determine the consequences are detrimental to the coexistence of peoples, national minorities, or ethnic groups, the prison sentence ranges from two to 10 years.

The criminal code prescribes a fine of between 200 and 16,000 euros ($220-$18,000) or up to two years’ imprisonment for restricting an individual’s freedom to exercise a religious belief or membership in a religious group or for preventing or obstructing the performance of religious rites. The code also provides for a fine from 600 euros to 8,000 euros ($670-$9,000) or a maximum of one year in prison for coercing another person to declare his or her religious beliefs. Any government official found guilty of these crimes may receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.

The law provides for the recognition of religious groups and registration with local and federal authorities; based on the now former law in force through the end of the year, religious groups that existed before 1977 were not obligated to register in order to obtain recognition. New religious groups had to register with local police within 15 days of their establishment to receive the status of a legal entity, although there was no penalty specified for failing to do so. The police then had to file this registration with the MOI, which maintains a list of all religious organizations in the country. According to the new law, signed on December 28 but not in effect at the end of the year, religious groups are no longer obliged to register. Only registered groups, however, obtain the right to legal personhood with the rights afforded to such. To register, a religious group must have three adult believers of Montenegrin citizenship, or with legal status in the country, provide its name and organizing documents, the names of its officials, the address of the group’s headquarters, and the location(s) where religious services will be performed. The group must have a headquarters in the country and a name that differs from groups already registered. Registration entitles groups to own property, hold bank accounts in their own name, and receive a tax exemption for donations and sales of goods or services directly related to their religious activities. Lack of registration or recognition did not affect a group’s ability to conduct religious activities for the year, but it was unclear how it will affect groups under the new law. Unregistered religious communities could register as another type of organization in order to open a bank account but could not receive the tax exemptions granted to registered religious groups. Many smaller religious communities registered as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the year.

There are 21 recognized religious groups in the country: the SOC, MOC, Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM), Roman Catholic Church, Church of Christ’s Gospel, Catholic Mission Tuzi, Christian Adventist Church, Evangelistic Church, Army Order of Hospitable Believers of Saint Lazar of Jerusalem for Montenegro, Franciscan Mission for Malesija, Biblical Christian Community, Baha’i Faith, Montenegrin Community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Montenegrin Catholic Church, Montenegrin Protestant Church, Montenegrin Demochristian Church, and Montenegrin Adventist Church, as well as the Buddhist and Jewish communities. All these groups are registered except for the SOC, which has not applied to register, since it existed before 1977 and is not obligated to under law. Other groups that existed before 1977 chose to register.

The government has agreements with the ICM, Jewish Community, and Holy See further defining the legal status of these respective groups and regulating their relationship with the state. The agreement with the Holy See recognizes Catholic canon law as the Church’s legal framework and outlines the Church’s property rights. The agreements with the ICM and Jewish communities have similar provisions. The agreements establish commissions between each of the three religious communities and the government. The government has no such agreements with the SOC, MOC, or the other recognized religious groups.

The Directorate for Relations with Religious Communities within the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights (MHMR) regulates relations between state agencies and religious groups and is charged with protecting the free exercise of religion and advancing interfaith cooperation and understanding. The MHMR provides some funds to religious communities and is in charge of communication between the government and religious communities. The ministry is also in charge of drafting new legislation defining the status and rights of religious organizations.

The law allows all religious groups, including unrecognized ones, to conduct religious services and rites in churches, shrines, and other premises designated by local governments, but it requires approval from municipal police for such activities at any other public locations.

The law forbids “the abuse of religious communities or their religious sites for political purposes.”

The law provides prisoners the right to engage in religious practice and have contact with clergy. Prisoners may request a diet conforming to their religious customs.

The constitution recognizes the right of members of minority national communities, individually or collectively, to exercise, protect, develop, and express “religious particularities” (i.e., religious customs unique to their minority community); to establish religious associations with the support of the state; and to establish and maintain contacts with persons and organizations outside the country who share the same religious beliefs.

By law, religion may not be taught in public primary or secondary schools. The Islamic Community operates one private madrassah at the secondary school level, and the SOC operates one secondary school, both of which offer religious instruction and follow the state curriculum in nonreligious matters.

The law prohibits discrimination, including on religious grounds. Offenses are punishable by a prison term of six months to five years. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights (ombudsman) is responsible for combating discrimination and human rights violations, including those against religious freedom, by government agencies. It may investigate complaints of religious discrimination and, if it finds a violation, may request remedial measures. Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($560-$2,800). Generally, government agencies implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. If necessary, the courts may enforce the recommendations.

The constitution exempts conscientious objectors, including those objecting for religious reasons, from military service. Alternative service is not required.

The constitution states foreign nationals fearing persecution in their home countries on the grounds of religion have the right to request asylum.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In December parliament passed the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities, which replaced the 1977 religion law, drafted during the Yugoslav period, which religious groups and government officials agreed was outdated and inadequate. The SOC said the new legislation was discriminatory, stating it would unfairly allow the state to assert ownership of religious buildings or land built or obtained with public revenues or “the joint investment of citizens,” or owned by the state until December 1, 1918, and “for which there was no evidence of ownership by the religious communities.” The SOC further said the law was vague because it did not specify what “evidence of ownership” would entail. The (SOC) Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral and the Diocese of Budimlje and Niksic stated the measure would mean “confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities,” and worried that that although the SOC had ownership documentation for each of its properties, these documents would not be sufficient. The government responded the new law provides ownership issues shall be determined in accordance with existing administrative and civil laws, and it stated there would be no ad hoc decisions outside of proscribed legal processes, nor was there an intention to turn away any worshippers from religious facilities. The government and religious groups confirmed the individual agreements with the ICM, Jewish Community, and Holy See would remain in place regardless of the newly adopted religious law.

Widespread demonstrations marked the law’s debate, eventual passage, and aftermath. Prior to the final vote, Speaker of Parliament Ivan Brajovic rejected discussion of the more than 100 amendments the Democratic Front (DF) had just introduced on behalf of the SOC. DF members of parliament (MPs), whom observers said were trying to prevent the final vote, threw a firecracker on the middle of the debate floor and charged the dais, grabbing and throwing microphones, papers, and electronic devices. Plainclothes police detained all 17 DF MPs, later releasing all but three: Milan Knezevic, Andrija Mandic, and Milun Zogovic. During debate on December 26, police cordoned off traffic in downtown Podgorica around parliament, keeping away hundreds of SOC and opposition supporters, while some DF members of parliament advocated for self-immolation in parliament to prevent the passing of the law. Street protests also took place in several other cities across the country, with reports that protests were generally peaceful except for isolated incidents of rock throwing and shooting of fireworks against the police. There were also reports of online incitements to violence. The SOC accused the government and President Djukanovic of inciting ethnic divisions. Prime Minister Markovic said there was “no hidden agenda” to take possession of SOC property and warned authorities would prevent any violation of peace and order. After the passing of the religion law on December 27, the SOC organized regular peaceful protests in which thousands turned out. Some marches in Niksic and Podgorica registered more than 50,000 participants. Citizens blocked roads in Podgorica, Niksic, Pljevlja, Berane, Herceg Novi, Tivat, Bar, and Andrijevica, while others participated in marches from their towns to the convocations. The SOC announced it would call biweekly protests on Thursdays and Sundays every week until parliament repealed the law. They also announced they would challenge the law in the constitutional court. The government and analysts said there was an apparently coordinated campaign of disinformation, propaganda, and provocation, some of which coming from third countries, seeking to fan ethnonationalistic divisions and provoke conflict through the protests.

Other religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Islamic Community, also stated the issue of religious properties should be regulated by other laws and not be included in the draft law. They added they were either told by the government or were simply aware that the ownership question was not an issue that concerned them, but rather an issue between the government and the SOC, although they raised concerns that the law could easily affect them once in place, as it would apply to all. Some religious groups raised concerns that the law would represent a step towards creating a de facto state religion, stating the government heavily favored the MOC. The MOC was the only religious group to welcome the property provisions of the law, stating the law would “return their rightful property to them.”

Government officials, including Zana Filipovic, general director of the MHMR’s Directorate of Relations with Religious Communities, described the law as positive, stating it was intended to modernize the existing law and there would be no mass reregistration of religious property to the government. They did not specify which properties could be considered “cultural heritage,” the specific process through which this would happen, or the body that would be responsible for implementing the property provisions of the law. Government officials indicated specific mechanisms would be developed in the next year. Government officials also said the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, supported the law and all changes to the draft were in line with the commission’s recommendations.

On August 26, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers published a written statement the SOC made at the UN Human Rights Council in which it cited its objections to the draft law, and particularly its property provisions. The SOC said the government had not responded to an SOC report citing its concerns over the law and said its principal objections were what it described as confiscation of religious property; loss of the previous legal status of religious communities; discrimination among religious communities; narrowing of the scope of freedom of religious groups; and a unilateral drafting procedure without dialogue. The statement also said the Church was the subject of discrimination, hate speech, and individual attacks and the government failed to protect priests or punish perpetrators, and it characterized SOC clergy as enemies of the state.

In June the Venice Commission issued an opinion on the draft legislation, stating registration as the owner might be insufficient for a religious group to establish ownership and the state might be able to assert ownership over a significant number of properties, particularly Orthodox. It praised the government for drafting a law that allowed freedom of belief and nonbelief, among other issues, but stated it was “evidently not the task of the Venice Commission to assess the historical facts and background, nor to determine whether and which of the disputed immovable properties were erroneously/abusively registered.”

The SOC convoked a church council on the June 15 Trojicindan holiday (Feast of the Holy Trinity) in Podgorica, protesting the then-draft law on religion and its potential property rights ramifications. SOC Bishop Joanikije Micovic of Budimlje and Niksic read a statement at the event, calling the draft law “antireligious” and “preparation for the looting of Church property.” Approximately 8,000 SOC followers attended what up until that point was one of the largest protests of the year. A few days before the protest, according to press reports, Joanikije said, “We will defend our property with our very lives. When it comes to that, there are no rules.”

According to a June 14 report in Balkan Insight, a website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Zana Filipovic, general director of the MHMHR’s Directorate of Relations with Religious Communities, said regarding the draft law, “We absolutely disagree that this is a form of confiscation and nationalization of religious objects.” She said the law would simply introduce “legal order into the property data of religious groups” and identify what constituted state property. The same report said President Djukanovic accused the SOC of waging a campaign for a Greater Serbia and promised to seek independence for the MOC. The article quoted Djukanovic as telling a convention of his Democratic Party of Socialists, “We will not allow contemporary Montenegro to live under the dictatorship of a religious organization that represents a relic of the past.”

On August 19, for the 10th year in a row, police banned members of both the MOC and SOC from celebrating the Transfiguration of Christ holiday at the Church of Christ’s Transfiguration in Ivanova Korita, citing concerns over potential clashes. The SOC controlled the site, located near the seat of the MOC in the historical capital of Cetinje. MOC leaders continued to state the ban constituted a violation of members’ basic human rights and requested state authorities allow MOC priests to practice in SOC-controlled Orthodox churches and monasteries.

In an October interview for Radio and Television of Montenegro, Prime Minister Markovic, commenting on a longstanding controversy surrounding an SOC church on Mt. Rumija, said he asked SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, “Do you really think that the state does not have the power to stop and knock down your illegal interventions? We can, and we can do it in one day, in one night. The baptistery and the church on Mt. Rumija, and all other churches you build without the agreement of the state.” Markovic added the government did not wish to do this, preferring instead to come to an agreement through dialogue. The prime minister stated, however, the metropolitan did not “accept that Montenegro was independent” or “respect any law,” and government would make the rule of law known to all in the country, “including the SOC.” Analysts stated the church’s placement on a hilltop in an area equally important to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims made it a constant focus of attention, and the SOC’s move to reinforce the structure during the year reignited the controversy, causing accusations from residents of the majority-Muslim area that SOC’s actions were deliberately provocative. Amfilohije suggested, in a July speech after liturgy at the church, that he hoped the government would finish paving the roads near it instead of removing it.

The government continued its policy of not providing restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav communist government. Although government officials said previously the revised law on religious communities would address restitution issues, the law did not do so. Government officials said they would introduce a new law to address restitution but had not done so at year’s end.

Government officials publicly supported the construction of a new synagogue in Podgorica on a number of occasions and publicly sent good wishes for Jewish holidays.

On October 31, President Djukanovic opened the annual Mahar conference in Budva, stating “The appointment of a chief rabbi in Montenegro is a bright spot that we are all happy about. Rabbi [Ari] Edelkopf is a not only the chief rabbi of the Jewish community, but for the entire country of Montenegro, and we will surely continue our fruitful cooperation with the Jewish community working with him.” The resident of the Jewish Community, Djordje Raicevic Levi, commenting on the positive relationships which he said the community enjoyed in the country, said, “In addition to our very supportive government, local, regional, and international organizations play a vital ongoing role in Montenegro’s Jewish community.”

The SOC said the MOI continued to deny visas to its clergy based on discriminatory procedures that required work documentation from a registered employer, although the SOC was not legally required to register and was fully recognized. The SOC stated it had 172 open legal cases of individuals who could not obtain public documents, identification cards, driver’s licenses, or work permits, or could not access public health services and/or schooling. The SOC also said the Ministry of Education refused to introduce religious education into schools as an optional subject and wanted the law changed to allow for such an option.

Several religious groups expressed a desire for broader or clearer tax exemption rules. SOC officials often stated that religious communities did not truly benefit from a tax-free status, as they generally paid value-added tax (VAT) on all their purchases, and private individuals could not deduct donations they made to religious organizations from their taxes. The Jewish community also raised the issue of VAT payments on their purchases, and the Islamic community said it had to pay a sizeable VAT on imported funeral vehicles it had received as a donation.

The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use to maintain religious shrines, for education or cultural projects, or for social and medical insurance for clergy. Both registered and unregistered religious communities remained eligible to apply for this funding. For the first 10 months of the year, the MOC received 38,390 euros ($43,100), the ICM 29,454 euros ($33,100), the SOC 41,521 euros ($46,700), the Jewish community 17,000 euros ($19,100), and the Catholic Church 21,929 euros ($24,600). Recognized religious communities also continued to receive in-kind assistance from other government ministries and from local governments.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The SOC said it could not perform religious ceremonies on the foundations of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog in the village of Martinici, in Gusinje, a municipality that is 94 percent Muslim, due to protests by local residents. According to the SOC, a municipal-level official threatened to burn down the church if it were restored. According to SOC reports, a cross placed on the ruins of the church on Easter Sunday was destroyed and thrown into the river during the night of Easter Monday. Police did not identify the perpetrators.

The ownership of 750 Orthodox sites, most of which were held by the SOC, remained contested between the SOC and MOC. Both groups said they wanted the government and law on religion to address the issue in their favor, but observers stated their points remained irreconcilable. The two groups celebrated Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter at separate locations, and police continued to provide protection around each group’s celebrations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet with government officials responsible for religious issues at the MHMR and at local mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, with officials in other ministries including the prime minister’s cabinet, and with the president to discuss relations between the government and religious groups and the draft law on religion.

On September 10, the Ambassador met with SOC Bishop Joanikije and other church officials to discuss their concerns regarding the draft law on religion as well as their relations with the government and other religious communities. On September 12, the Ambassador met with Metropolitan Mihailo of the MOC and discussed government relations, property concerns, the draft law on religion, and interreligious relations.

On October 23, the Ambassador met with President of the Jewish Community Dorde Raicevic Levi and Rabbi Eldekop to discuss the community’s plans for a Jewish community center in Podgorica. On October 25, the Ambassador met with Catholic Archbishop Rrok Gjonlleshaj and discussed the role of the Catholic Church in the country.

The Ambassador met with Metropolitan Amfilohije on November 5 to discuss the challenges the SOC faced, its position on the draft law on religion, and the SOC’s strained relationship with the government. The Ambassador also met with representatives of Muslim communities in Podgorica, Rozaje, Pljevlja, and other municipalities to discuss the issues they faced, including perceived malign Russian influence.

Other embassy officials had regular contact with representatives of all major religious communities in the country, such as the SOC, MOC, Jewish community, ICM, and Catholic Church, to discuss their concerns, particularly in light of the religious law.

On May 10, the Ambassador hosted an iftar at the Islamic Cultural Center in Bar for representatives of various religious, political, cultural, and business communities and civil society, in which participants discussed interfaith tolerance and religious moderation. The iftar included the participation not only of formal representatives of the major faiths but also of youth and women of various faiths, creating an opportunity for broad interfaith dialogue.

On November 15-16, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with leaders of the SOC, MOC, Catholic Church, Islamic Community, and Jewish Community, discussing concerns over the draft law on religious freedom, particularly on property. He also called for participation in regional reconciliation efforts and detailed his vision for religious leaders to lead the process, securing the willingness of all faith leaders. After his meetings, the Ambassador at Large called for open dialogue on the new draft law, noting that many groups were dissatisfied with it. On November 15, the Ambassador hosted a discussion on the draft law on religion for the Ambassador at Large, legal counsels of religious groups, and government officials. The event brought representatives of a broad range of faiths and of government to discuss the issue together for the first time, and participants hailed it as a success.

Serbia

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. While religious groups are not required to register with the government in order to conduct religious services, some religious groups reported that it is difficult to conduct business, hold bank accounts, or own property without being registered. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) did not act to resolve contested religious registration claims by different Jewish groups, which Jewish leaders said contributed to an ongoing rift in the community. The Ministry of Culture and Information assumed responsibility for establishing a memorial at the site of the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade; in October the ministry issued a draft law establishing the memorial and held public consultations on the proposed legislation. An off-duty gendarme officer in Belgrade reportedly threatened to kill a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door ministry, and there were incidents of local authorities obstructing Jehovah’s Witnesses from engaging in proselytizing.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported cases of verbal threats toward members engaged in missionary work, destruction of mobile literature carts, and inconsistent and sometimes inadequate responses to these incidents by police and prosecutors. Smaller groups, mainly Protestant churches, said they encountered public distrust and misunderstanding and said members of the public frequently branded their religious groups as “sects,” which has a very strong negative connotation in the Serbian language. Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores.

U.S. embassy officials urged the government to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and urged the Ministry of Justice to act on certification of contested elections within the Jewish community. U.S. government officials monitored progress on the draft law establishing a memorial at the WWII-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site, advocating that the government speed up progress on the process. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives from a wide range of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, cooperation with the government, interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, and property restitution. In March the Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Serbian Orthodox patriarch to highlight U.S. support for church cultural preservation efforts. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with various religious leaders to encourage renewed interfaith communication.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 85 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Sunni Muslim, and 1 percent Protestant. The remaining 6 percent includes Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, members of other religious groups, agnostics, atheists, and individuals without a declared religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population that identifies as Orthodox Christian are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), a category not specifically listed in the census. Adherents of the Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian, and other Orthodox Churches may be included in the numbers of “Orthodox Christians” or in the “other Christian” category that is part of the remaining 6 percent, depending on how they self-identify.

Catholics are predominantly ethnic Hungarians and Croats residing in Vojvodina Province. Muslims include Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims) in the southwest Sandzak region, ethnic Albanians in the south, and Roma located throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the freedom of belief and religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states that everyone shall have the freedom to worship and practice religion individually or with others, in private or in public, and no one shall be obliged to declare one’s religion. The constitution states the freedom to express one’s religion or beliefs may be restricted by law only as necessary to protect life or health, the morals of democratic society, freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution, or public safety and order, or to prevent incitement of religious, national, or racial hatred. The constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for religious groups, and calls for separation of religion and state. It states that churches and religious communities shall be free to organize their internal structure, perform religious rites in public, and establish and manage religious schools and social and charity institutions in accordance with the law. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination or incitement of religious hatred, calls upon the government to promote religious diversity and tolerance, and states religious refugees have a right to asylum, the procedures for which shall be established in law.

The law bans incitement of discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or group on religious grounds and carries penalties ranging from one to 10 years in prison, depending on the type of offense.

The law grants special treatment to seven religious groups the government defines as “traditional.” These are the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Islamic community, and Jewish community. The law considers Islam in general a traditional religion, and the Muslim community is divided between the Islamic Community of Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Belgrade, and the Islamic Community in Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Novi Pazar. Both Islamic communities are officially registered with the government and may conduct most normal business, such as receiving financial assistance from the government, receiving healthcare and pension benefits for clergy, maintaining tax-exempt status, holding bank accounts, owning property, and employing staff. Neither group, however, has absolute authority over matters regarding the entire Islamic community. “Church” is a term reserved for Christian religious groups, while the term “religious community” refers to non-Christian groups and to some Christian entities.

The seven traditional religious groups recognized by law are automatically registered in the Register of Churches and Religious Communities. In addition to these groups, the government grants traditional status, solely in Vojvodina Province, to the Diocese of Dacia Felix of the Romanian Orthodox Church, with its seat in Romania and administrative seat in Vrsac in Vojvodina.

The law also grants the seven traditional religious groups, but not other registered religious groups, the right to receive value-added tax refunds and to provide chaplain services to military personnel.

There are 25 “nontraditional” religious groups registered with the government: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Church in Serbia, Church of Christ’s Love, Spiritual Church of Christ, Union of Christian Baptist Churches in Serbia, Nazarene Christian Religious Community (associated with the Apostolic Christian Church [Nazarene]), Church of God in Serbia, Protestant Christian Community in Serbia, Church of Christ Brethren in Serbia, Free Belgrade Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zion Sacrament Church, Union of Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, Protestant Evangelical Church Spiritual Center, Evangelical Church of Christ, Slovak Union of Baptist Churches, Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia, Charismatic Community of Faith in Serbia, the Buddhist Religious Community Nichiren Daishonin, the LOGOS Christian Community in Serbia, Golgotha Church in Serbia, Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia, Biblical Center “Good News,” and First Roma Christian Church Leskovac. Several of these organizations are umbrella groups that oversee many individual churches, sometimes of slightly differing affiliations.

The law does not require religious groups to register, but it treats unregistered religious organizations as informal groups that do not receive any of the legal benefits registered religious groups receive. Only registered religious groups may build new places of worship, own property, apply for property restitution, or receive state funding for their activities. Registration is also required to open bank accounts and hire staff. Registered clerics of registered groups are entitled to government support for social and health insurance and a retirement plan. According to government sources, 17 registered groups use these benefits. The law also exempts registered groups from property and administrative taxes and from filing annual financial reports.

To obtain registration, a group must submit the following: the names, identity numbers, copies of notarized identity documents, and signatures of at least 100 citizen members; its statutes and a summary of its religious teachings, ceremonies, religious goals, and basic activities; and information on its sources of funding. The law prohibits registration if an applicant group’s name includes part of the name of an existing registered group. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains the Register of Churches and Religious Communities and responds to registration applications. If the MOJ rejects a registration application, the religious group may appeal the decision in court.

According to the constitution, the Constitutional Court may ban a religious community for activities infringing on the right to life or health, the rights of the child, the right to personal and family integrity, public safety, and order, or if it incites religious, national, or racial intolerance. It also states the Constitutional Court may ban an association that incites religious hatred.

The MOJ’s Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities manages all matters pertaining to the cooperation of the state with churches and religious communities. These include assistance to national minorities in protecting the religious traditions integral to their cultural and ethnic identity, cooperation between the state and SOC dioceses abroad, support for religious education, and support for and protection of the legal standing of churches and religious communities. The government’s independent Office for Human and Minority Rights, which addresses policy and monitors the status of minorities, also oversees some religious issues.

The law recognizes restitution claims for religious property confiscated in 1945 or later for registered religious groups only. The law permits individual claims for properties lost by Holocaust victims during WWII under the Holocaust-Era Property Law, but religious groups may not claim property confiscated prior to 1945. Registered religious groups that had property and endowments seized after WWII may apply for their restitution.

In accordance with the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-era assets, the law provides for the restitution of heirless and unclaimed Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, allowing the Jewish community to file restitution claims based on these seizures, while still permitting future claimants to come forward. The law defines “heirless property” as any property not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution. The Jewish community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust. The law also stipulates financial support from the state budget for the Jewish community of 950,000 euros ($1.07 million) per year for a 25-year period, which began with an initial payment in 2017. The law requires the appointment of a supervisory board with representatives from the country’s Jewish community, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and a government-appointed chairperson to oversee implementation of the restitution law’s provisions. The law established a February 28 deadline for filing claims.

The constitution states parents and legal guardians shall have the right to ensure the religious education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. The law provides for religious education in public schools. Representatives of the Office for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities have stated that religious education in public schools may be provided for any registered religious community, but no parents have requested education for any religion except the seven traditional groups. Students in primary and secondary schools must attend either religious or civic education class. Parents choose which option is appropriate for their child. The curriculum taught in the religion classes varies regionally, reflecting the number of adherents of a given religion in a specific community. Typically, five interested students is the minimum needed to offer instruction in a religion. In areas where individual schools do not meet the minimum number, the Ministry of Education attempts to combine students into regional classes for religious instruction.

The Commission for Religious Education approves religious education programs, textbooks, and other teaching materials and appoints religious education instructors from lists of qualified candidates supplied by each religious group. The commission is comprised of representatives from each traditional religious group, the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, and the Ministries of Education and of Science and Technological Development. Representatives of the Islamic Community in Serbia have not participated in the work of the commission. Instead, they have submitted their list of religious teachers directly to the education ministry for approval. According to the Islamic Community in Serbia, appointment of their religious teachers in schools throughout the Sandzak region has depended on local authorities rather than the education ministry. The Islamic Community of Serbia participates in the commission.

The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection based on religious beliefs. It states no person shall be obliged to perform military or any other service involving the use of weapons if this is inconsistent with his or her religion or beliefs, but a conscientious objector may be called upon to fulfill military duty not involving carrying weapons. By law, all men must register for military service when they turn 18, but there currently is no mandatory military service.

The constitution allows any court with legal jurisdiction to prevent the dissemination of information advocating religious hatred, discrimination, hostility, or violence.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police did not respond adequately to some incidents involving threats or assault against members of the group but took appropriate action in other cases.

On September 15, in Belgrade, an off-duty member of the gendarmerie reportedly threatened to kill a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door ministry. He then reportedly chased the group away with his car. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said the police questioned the assailant and sent the case to the public prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office did not provide an update to the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the case.

On October 10, in Kragujevac, a police officer cited and fined a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door missionary work, saying that they needed a permit. The Jehovah’s Witnesses noted the law does not require a permit for proselytizing.

On September 28, in Klenak, police officers ordered a group of Jehovah’s Witness to stop their door-to-door ministry and to leave the locality. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said the local chief of police showed little understanding of their legal rights.

The Ministry of Justice did not act to certify or reject an application to change the legal leadership of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia stemming from a contested election in July 2018, or an application to change legal leadership of the Jewish Community of Belgrade resulting from a contested March 2019 election. Ministry officials said delays in making decisions on the two applications were due to ongoing investigations of both elections and pending legal actions taken by opposing Jewish groups. Jewish leaders said government inaction on the paperwork contributed to tensions within the Jewish community.

The Federation of Jewish Communities said the government’s Agency for Restitution favored some Jewish groups over others in processing claims under the Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property Law. Representatives of the agency stated it acted impartially and noted that it returned at least some property to most communities and continued to actively process claims. They also noted that some types of claims were easier to substantiate and complete, for example apartments and business property in Belgrade, where WWII-era records were good with regards to Jewish property confiscation. More rural Jewish communities tended to have a greater number of agricultural claims, which were more difficult to process. Additionally, the agency said that regions in the semiautonomous province of Vojvodina had generally poorer records of Jewish property confiscation during WWII. Most Jewish communities reported general satisfaction with their ability to file claims. The Restitution Agency reported 1,683 claims were filed by the February 28 deadline.

In accordance with the law on Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property, the government continued to return heirless and unclaimed property taken during WWII to the Jewish community and to individuals. This law governs personal property taken from members of the Jewish community during the Holocaust, primarily consisting of nonreligious residential and business property and agricultural land. The government began processing claims under the law in 2016 and, as of December 31, 2018, reported it had returned a total of 59,712 hectares (147,552 acres) of land of which 27,349 hectares (67,581 acres) was agricultural land; 32,268 hectares (79,736 acres) was forests and forest land; and 188 hectares (464 acres) was construction land. Ownership rights to more than 91,887 square meters (989,000 square feet) of buildings were restored as well as one painting by artist Uros Predic.

The Christian Baptist Church of Belgrade reported that it was unable to open a bank account during the year after its bank closed its account in December 2018 for failure to provide registration-related documents. The church did not file for registration under the 2006 law, stating that the law was discriminatory, and that the law recognized legal status obtained under the previous legal framework; this meant that reregistration was not required, and any consequences of not reregistering were discriminatory.

In May the European Court of Human Rights rejected a 2013 complaint by the Christian Baptist Church and the Protestant Evangelical Church alleging the law violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it required the groups to apply for registration under the current law, despite having already been granted legal status under previous laws and previous governments.

Director of the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities Mileta Radojevic said the directorate focused its expenditures on traditional religious groups because they represented the vast majority of the population. He said the directorate provided financial support for books or printed materials, some reconstruction projects, and scholarships, but only for members of religious groups with a formal, university-level religious institution within the country. Prospective clergy from smaller denominations who relied on seminaries outside the country were ineligible for such scholarships.

The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches remained unregistered. The government continued to recognize only the SOC and continued its policy of deferring to the SOC for approval of any other Orthodox church body to operate in the country. The SOC continued not to recognize the autocephaly of the Macedonian or Montenegrin Orthodox Churches, and government officials stated that secular authorities should not try to resolve issues among individual Orthodox churches.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that while some state hospital workers “improved their attitudes” toward their religious beliefs, the state medical system as a whole remained the biggest impediment to their religious freedom, with many doctors unwilling to provide care without blood transfusions.

One Buddhist group, the Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia, said it successfully registered in May after the Ministry of Justice provided detailed guidance on correcting errors in previous registration applications. Community leaders also reported that local government officials in Indjija paved the road leading to the group’s new monastery.

Despite incidents involving members engaged in door-to-door outreach, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally satisfactory engagement with the government, in particular the Ministry of Justice, which helped the group navigate administrative issues.

Early in the year the Ministry of Culture and Information took over responsibility for establishing a memorial at the site of the WWII-era Staro Sajmiste concentration and extermination camp in Belgrade from a nongovernmental commission. In October the ministry issued a draft law that would protect the site and establish the memorial, and also held three public consultations on the draft legislation. Public comments received included comments on proposed names for the memorial, the definition of genocide, and the inclusion in the memorial of other camps in Belgrade and in Croatia.

The government continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later, returning 773 hectares (1,910 acres) of land, of which 722 hectares (1,784 acres) was agricultural land; 41 hectares (101 acres) of forests and forest land; 22 acres of construction land; and 985 square meters (10,600 square feet) of office space to churches and religious communities either the properties themselves or by substitution – including the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Romanian Orthodox Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Jewish Community and Seventh-day Adventist Church. The government estimated it had returned approximately 78 percent of land and 38 percent of buildings claimed by churches and religious communities.

The two Islamic communities said they had each submitted claims on the same set of properties. In explaining the lack of progress on other claims, the restitution agency said that, in general, the claims were poorly substantiated and required extra resources to process. Muslim leaders said the fact that neither of the two Islamic groups had authority over matters regarding the entire Muslim community created difficulty in coordinating property restitution cases and in selecting religious instructors for public school courses on religion.

The national television service, Radio Television of Serbia, continued to broadcast a daily 10-minute Religious Calendar program about major holidays celebrated by monotheistic religions.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported one physical assault and three incidents of threats against members engaged in field ministry.

On April 23, in Kragujevac, an unknown man approached two Jehovah’s Witnesses and attacked their property, overturning and damaging their mobile literature cart, and discarding the accompanying materials. The group stated it reported the incident to police, who did not follow up.

On February 9, in Belgrade, a man threatened to assault a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Police questioned the man and sent the case to the public prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office did not provide an update on the status of the case by year’s end.

On January 11, in Batajnica, an unknown driver taunted two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were preaching near a road. The two reported the car model and license plate number to police but said the police did not follow up.

On February 7, in Uzice, a man threatened two Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in public preaching and attacked their mobile literature cart. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the incident to the police, and a senior police official provided his personal phone number to facilitate communication in case the victims encountered the assailant again.

On November 4, in Novi Pazar, the Islamic Community in Serbia said it received a threatening letter with a bullet enclosed. The Community reported the letter to police but did not receive a substantive response, according to community representatives. The Islamic Community of Serbia also reported receiving threatening correspondence during the year.

Anti-Semitic works, including the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were available online, or for purchase from informal sellers or online bookshops. Right-wing groups maintained several websites and individuals hosted chat rooms that openly promoted anti-Semitic ideas and literature.

Many smaller or nontraditional religious groups reported some public bias and discrimination against their members, but without citing specific examples. Several Protestant groups noted their impression that the general public still mistrusted and misunderstood Protestantism, and that individuals sometimes referred to some Protestant denominations as “sects,” which has a strong negative connotation of “secrecy and mystifying rituals” in the Serbian language, according to anthropologist of religion Aleksandra Djuric Milovanovic. A representative of Christ Evangelical Church said use of the word sect seemed to be resurgent in media reports. The pastor at Lighthouse Evangelical Church also said that society looked down on his religious community as a sect.

Several smaller religious groups said that interfaith education and dialogue were needed among the broader religious community, not just among the seven traditional groups. Members of the Roman Catholic Church, First Baptist Church, Jewish community, and Muslim community attending an interfaith event all agreed that interfaith communication needed to be improved. Multiple smaller groups, including Christ Evangelical Church, the Anglican Church, and the Theravada Buddhist Community, reported good cooperation with local SOC officials.

The registered Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) Diocese of Dacia Felix operated in the Banat region of Vojvodina Province in an agreement with the SOC. In a May press release following the annual assembly of all SOC Bishops, SOC leaders criticized “the uncanonical intrusions of bishops and clergy of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the Dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Eastern Serbia.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to engage with government officials, local religious leaders, and international Jewish organizations to encourage resolution of the conflict within the Jewish community. The Ambassador on several occasions urged the Minister of Justice to make decisions on religious registration related to disputed elections within the Jewish Federation and the Belgrade Jewish Community. The embassy worked with Jewish organizations and the Israeli embassy to encourage progress on this issue.

The embassy continued to work with the Agency for Restitution and other members of government in the application of the Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property law.

Embassy officials continued to engage with the government on plans for a memorial at the World War II-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site. In January representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and embassy officials urged the Minister of Labor, Employment, Veteran, and Social Policy, who had legacy jurisdiction over the memorial process, and the Minister of Culture, who assumed control over the process, to move forward with a draft law to authorize the memorial complex. Embassy officials continued to meet with Ministry of Culture officials throughout the year to discuss the draft law and to urge further action to establish the memorial.

In March the Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch to highlight U.S. support for church cultural preservation efforts.

In November the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom engaged with a wide variety of religious leaders in Belgrade, including the Patriarch of the SOC, representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim and Jewish communities, and Baptist Church. During his visit, the Ambassador advocated for renewed and institutional interfaith discussions.

In April as part of an ongoing Ohio National Guard military-to-military partnership with the Serbian army, military chaplains from different faiths visited their Ohio counterparts to share best practices and deepen cooperation. The program featured an interfaith dialogue and highlighted the role of military chaplains working with all service members regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

In May the embassy sponsored a visit by a U.S. gospel vocal group for a series of concerts and appearances around the country that highlighted religious diversity. During concerts for interfaith audiences and discussions with musicians from religious communities, the performers shared their personal experiences of growing up in faith communities.

In October the embassy posted a series of social media posts highlighting global threats to religious freedom, as well as America’s religious diversity, history of religious experimentation, and deep commitment to religious freedoms in honor of International Religious Freedom Day.

Embassy officials met with and discussed the status of religious freedom with members of the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Islamic Community in Serbia, Islamic Community of Serbia, Jewish community, Christian Baptist Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Anglican Church, the Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia, Faculty of Orthodox Theology, Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, Lighthouse Evangelical Church, Christ Evangelical Church, and the NGO Centar9.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future