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Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization. The agreements recognize each group as one of the country’s main faith communities and address property restitution and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. VUSH reported the government continued not to allocate funds to evangelical Christian churches, despite the State Committee on Religion’s advocacy on their behalf for financial support. The government legalized 92 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 164 in 2019, while the status of 32 additional properties remained under review. Corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction on property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to claim their property, according to numerous civil society sources. The AMC, Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about property restitution, including provisions in the law that required them to resubmit their claims in a new forum. VUSH leaders reported continued difficulties in acquiring permission to construct places of worship as well as problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi community and the Albanian Muslim Community (AMC, formerly translated as the Albanian Islamic Community) reported problems defending the title to certain properties. The AMC reported the government denied its application for a permit to build a new campus for Beder University, requested in early 2018. Prior to its October 28 online forum against anti-Semitism, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures, canceling gatherings, including for worship, for two months. The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held several online and in-person meetings domestically and internationally.

The U.S. embassy urged government officials to accelerate the property claims process and to return religious groups’ buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism among young people. On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. Government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer an optional census question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually or collectively, in public or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion, and it prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies that the State Committee on Religion, under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

Religious communities must take claims for restitution of and compensation for property confiscated by the communist government to court, as must all other claimants.

The law allows religious communities to operate educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion. The law allows the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 113 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operated numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AMC runs four madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

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

Government Practices

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the fall of communism in the early 1990s. The newly established State Agency of the Cadaster – the official register showing quantity, value, and ownership of real estate – reported that during the year, it legalized 92 religious buildings, including 22 Catholic churches and other buildings of the Catholic church, 58 mosques and other buildings of the Muslim community, four Orthodox churches, and seven tekkes. Thirty-two other buildings remained under review. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by the Cadaster and those of the religious communities. The AMC reported it obtained legalization papers for 27 mosques out of 353 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported the Cadaster legalized four of 15 buildings during the year for which the Church had petitioned. The AMC reported it received 1.26 million leks ($12,600) in compensation for unlawful buildings constructed on its property.

Religious communities expressed concern over the Cadaster, stating the bureaucratic process for legalizing property produced delays, including numerous requests for documents and statements from the Cadaster that it could not locate files.

The AMC again expressed concern that the Cadaster gave it title only to buildings and not to the land on which they were built.

In 2019, the Agency for the Treatment of Property, which adjudicated claims for restitution for property confiscated by the communist government, ceded jurisdiction on outstanding cases to the court system, as required by law. At that time, 401 cases related to religious communities were pending. The shift in jurisdiction required petitioners, including religious communities, to pursue their claims in court. The AMC, the Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.

According to numerous civil society and other sources, corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction over property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to advance claims to their property. Thousands of cases were with the Supreme Court, which was replenishing its quorum with judges who passed a comprehensive vetting process; lacking a quorum, the Supreme Court was unable to decide cases. The Orthodox Church reported it had outstanding claims on 890 properties. The AMC reported that since 2016, it had submitted approximately 500 applications dealing with approximately 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of property and was pursuing 15 legal cases. The AMC reported there were four judgments in its favor providing compensation that had not yet been paid. The Catholic Church reported four cases, two of which had not yet had a first hearing.

The AMC reported the Municipality of Tirana rejected a permit to build a main campus building for Beder University, for which it had applied in early 2018 to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities. The municipality concluded the construction would block the view of oncoming traffic.

The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate, which represents the government in court, unfairly challenged title to property in Ksamil. The claim for the Ksamil property has been in the court system since 2015.

VUSH reported it asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities, but the government had not responded by year’s end.

VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land but did not issue permission to VUSH to build on its own land. VUSH also reported one of its churches in Tirana that was damaged by the 2019 earthquake would be demolished. The local government informed the church it would not be able to occupy space in the new building because the government could not subsidize churches.

Leaders of the five main religious groups continued to express concern over a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which was introduced in 2016 but put on hold. The groups stated they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or post-pilot plans for the project. State authorities explained that religious communities would be able to provide input before the project resumes.

The State Committee on Religion and the AMC expressed concern the government continued not to recognize diplomas in theology and religious studies received from foreign institutions.

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.09 million), a sum that has not changed since 2015. The Sunni Muslim community received approximately 32 million leks ($319,000), while the remaining three communities each continued to receive approximately 26 million leks ($259,000). The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community used part of the funds to pay part of the wages of its staff. It used the rest to build the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and for raising awareness of the Bektashi community overseas.

VUSH reported it had not obtained a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, although in 2018, the State Committee on Religion had provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to VUSH.

Religious communities faced financial problems during the year due to COVID-19 containment measures, which they urged members of their communities to follow. They reported the government did not respond to individual or collective requests through the Interreligious Council regarding additional financial support during the lockdown, which lasted from March 11 to June 11.

The Council of Ministers did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion. The Orthodox Church raised its concerns over the missing regulations, particularly in the south of the country, home to many members of the Orthodox faith.

A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted in 2017 and updated continuously thereafter counted 195 organizations, 174 of which were evangelical organizations. The AMC has one organization, the Orthodox Church has four, and the Catholic Church has 16. The government postponed the 2020 population census to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious communities said the government consulted them in the initial phase of drafting census legislation but not during the final stages of refining the law. They expressed concern that this would reduce their groups’ reported numerical strength within the country, with a corresponding reduction in representation and government support.

As the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama hosted a conference on combating anti-Semitism on February 4-5 in Tirana. On October 28, parliament held an online forum on combating anti-Semitism. Prior to the forum, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to financial constraints, including a drop in donations as a result of the closure of religious services during the pandemic, the AMC closed two madrassahs.

Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures. In March, when the government implemented a lockdown, religious communities cancelled gatherings, including religious services, for two months. The Interreligious Council held several online and in person meetings domestically and internationally.

On November 5, the AMC launched the fourth version of a project to promote critical thinking in young people and discuss the relationships between democracy, faith, and society. The project focused on communities that had sent individuals to fight in Syria.

The Interreligious Council provided books and other donations to children living in areas affected by the 2019 earthquake.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the State Committee on Religion, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era.

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy, however, continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the appeal of violent extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Another embassy program focusing on schools as community centers expanded into six additional communities, promoting tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement bodies. The success of the program’s two pilot locations led to its expansion into the six additional ones.

On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one house of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – who are predominantly SOC, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, respectively. The government again failed to comply with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling on it to open these positions to other minorities. By law, no Muslim group may register or open a mosque without the approval of the Islamic Community (IC). The human rights ministry made little progress implementing instructions making it responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The Presidency again failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. Religious groups, in communities where they are a minority, reported authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against them in providing services and granting building permits. UNICEF reported students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious discrimination in schools. The Interreligious Council (IRC), comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported inadequate investigation and prosecution of religiously motivated crimes.

The IRC registered 14 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites, including one involving a shooting at a cross, but said the number of actual incidents was likely much higher. In October, vandals damaged the Sultan Sulaiman Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, a designated national monument. The Saint Sava Orthodox church in Blazuj near Sarajevo was repeatedly vandalized, and several Catholic memorials and chapels were also vandalized. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to the police. The incidents ranged from threatening religious leaders and disturbing religious ceremonies with threats to vandalizing cemeteries and other religious sites. In contrast with the previous year, the OSCE did not report any anti-Semitic incidents. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents in an August survey expressed support for maintaining religious education in schools.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities to government officials. In May, the Ambassador met with the newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge the groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith and reconciliation-themed activities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.

The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.

The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It provides for equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.

The laws of Brcko, a self-governing district, do not encompass freedom of religion. Instead, national laws on religious freedom are applied.

A national law on religion provides for freedom of conscience and grants legal status to “churches and religious communities.” To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. The constitutions of BiH, the Federation, and RS state that registered religious organizations are allowed to operate freely. Simplified registration procedures applied to religious groups recognized prior to adoption of the law, primarily the Orthodox Church, IC, Jewish Community, Catholic Church, and other Christian groups, including the Evangelical, Baptist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community.

Registration affords numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those that do not register, including the right to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.

According to law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application. The law stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.” A group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction.

The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.

In addition to registered churches and religious communities, there are educational, charitable, and other institutions, known as “legal subjects,” that belong to these communities but are registered as separate legal entities in the MOJ registry. The IC has 120 legal subjects, the Catholic Church 398, the Orthodox Church 526, and other churches and religious communities and alliances (primarily of Protestant groups) of these communities have 47.

A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions and carry out religious education in public or private schools, and it officially recognizes Catholic holidays. The government and the Catholic Church created a commission to implement the concordat. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, and a commission to implement it was created in September.

The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.

The law on religion states that churches and religious communities are obligated to pay taxes and contributions on earnings of their employees (pension, health, and disability insurance). In the Federation, two of 10 cantons – Western Herzegovina Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton – include religious officials in their health insurance system. Sarajevo Canton does not include religious workers in its health insurance system but offers such insurance to religious officials under more favorable provisions than those available to average citizens. The RS provides pension benefits and disability insurance to religious workers while they have residence in the RS.

All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. The criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.

The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers, who are employees of the schools where they teach, although they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.

The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.

In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course, or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective religious education in secondary schools.

The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.

The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.

A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.

The country has no law on restitution that would allow for the return of, or compensation for, property, including property owned by religious groups, nationalized or expropriated under communist rule.

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

Government Practices

The human rights ministry made little progress in implementing 2019 instructions for implementation of the national religious freedom law. In accordance with the instructions, the ministry is responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The MHRR took no steps to draft proposals for resolving the issues of rights to pension, disability allowance, and health insurance for religious officials, despite issuing instructions in 2019 stating it would do so and submit the proposals to the government for approval. National, Federation, and RS governments had still not made provisions for religious officials to fully qualify for pensions and health and disability insurance, more than 16 years after the adoption of the law on religious freedom and the 2019 issuance of instructions on implementation of the law stating the MHRR should work with religious group representatives to resolve the issue.

The government again failed to comply with a 2009 decision by the ECHR stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of minority groups, including Jews, to run for president and the House of Peoples.

The MOJ said it generally processed registration applications by religions groups within a week. There were no reports the ministry denied any registration applications by religious communities.

The Presidency again failed to reach a consensus on the approval of a 2015 agreement between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The Presidency did not inform the MHRR what part of the agreement was not acceptable to it.

In September, the IRC reported the government prohibition against employees of judicial institutions wearing any form of “religious insignia,” including headscarves, at work, remained in place. While there were no instances of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council applying the prohibition during the year, an IC representative stated its existence caused uneasiness and uncertainty among Muslims working in or visiting these institutions.

According to officials of religious groups constituting a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. On March 3, three years after the original application, Drvar municipal authorities issued a location permit to the Catholic Saint Joseph Parish in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. In 2019, the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of the center, overturning the municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request.

As of September, the government of BiH had only partially implemented an ECHR ruling ordering it to remove a Serbian Orthodox church the court found was illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The lawyer representing Orlovic confirmed the RS government paid Orlovic and her relatives for financial damages. At the end of February, SOC officials removed all religious items from the church, and, for the first time, there was no church liturgy held on the church’s patron saint’s day on September 11. At year’s end, the church building remained in place on Orlovic’s property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s continuing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities and the lack of a law on restitution – for both religious communities and private citizens – hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, repeatedly said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to religious community leaders, political disagreement over whether the state or the country’s two entities – the Federation and RS – had competency over restitution, as well as the potential cost, were the main barriers to the country’s adopting a law on restitution. According to a study done by the Economic Institute of the Faculty of Economics, University of Sarajevo, just under 7 percent of the total nationalized property in the country belonged to religious communities, and each major religious group had unresolved restitution claims involving high-profile properties. For example, the SOC sought return of its former seminary building, which housed the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Economics; the Jewish Community was seeking return of its La Benevolencija building in the center of Sarajevo, which housed the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton; the Catholic Church was seeking return of its Saint Augustine Institute building in Sarajevo, which housed the Music Academy; and the IC had a claim on the Palata Gazihusrevbeg building in downtown Sarajevo. In some cases, municipal, cantonal, and entity governments engaged in “silent restitution,” where they allowed religious communities to use a property but did not transfer legal ownership. All main religious groups expressed concerns regarding discrimination and unequal treatment of religious communities by the Federation and the RS. All major religious groups in the country said they agreed on the urgent need for a restitution law to be adopted.

In welcoming remarks during a Christmas reception on January 16, SOC Metropolitan Hrizostom called on the BiH Presidency to support, and the BiH Parliament to adopt, a law on restitution of property. He stated that, by failing to return seized properties to churches and religious communities, the government continued to violate basic human and religious rights of believers. On September 17, Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, in a meeting with High Representative Valentin Inzko, the official responsible for overseeing implementation of civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement, said the government should either return all nationalized properties to religious groups or pay them compensation. In its October report, Key Findings of the Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovinas EU Membership Application and Analytical Report, the European Commission criticized BiH authorities for failure to adopt a legislative framework for handling restitution cases.

At the end of 2019, the Municipality of Stari Grad Sarajevo began construction of a 5,800 square-meter (62,000 square-foot) building in the center of Sarajevo on a plot of land, ownership of which was partly claimed by four Jewish families and partly by the IC. The Stari Grad Municipality registered itself as the owner of the land, even though the Jewish Community informed the municipality that one of the four original Jewish owners was still alive and the remaining three had living heirs. The families and Jewish Community submitted an appeal to the municipality in 2018, but the municipality rejected it in 2019 and issued a building permit to itself and private investor Amko Komerc. Unlike the Jewish families, several online media outlets, including and, reported that the IC was compensated for its share of the property.

According to a UNICEF report issued in March, students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance, and division in a number of ethnically homogenous schools throughout the country, especially in the “two schools under one roof,” where children were segregated from each other based on ethnicity.

Returnee students (those belonging to a minority ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their rights to language education. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation of BiH Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and the Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the IC. According to media and international organizations, the boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture (RS MoEC) to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 in which the RS Supreme Court ruled they were entitled to the national group of subjects in the Bosnian language. The RS MoEC, however, failed to implement the decision by the beginning of the new school year in September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, with teachers traveling from Zenica-Doboj Canton, approximately 80 kilometers (48 miles) away. In June, lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the RS Supreme Court decision at the Kotor Varos Basic Court. By year’s end, that court had not responded. Lawyers representing the parents also reported that they had tried to meet with the RS MoEC officials twice, but without success.

According to nongovernmental organizations and media reports, parents often chose to send their children to public school religious education classes to avoid having their children stand out from other children who attend the classes and be exposed to peer pressure. In August, the PRIME Communications agency asked 1,500 persons whether religious education should remain in schools in the country; 52.8 percent of respondents opposed removing religious education from schools; 16 percent were largely against removal; 11.5 percent favored removal; and the remainder did not answer the question.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees again complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Representatives of religious minority communities throughout the country reported that their members had difficulties accessing government services and protections, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. For example, in July, Cardinal Puljic told an Italian Catholic media outlet that thousands of Catholics left the country every year because of discrimination.

On several occasions, IRC leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence and harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated the cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to the IRC, the officials rarely investigated the motives of the acts, which would help distinguish cases of theft from hate crimes. In many instances, IRC leaders said they hesitated to report incidents to the police or media, particularly in areas where their religious group is a minority, fearing that public attention could result in retaliation and greater problems for their community in the future.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both the school and street retained the Busuladzic name.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See had not met since 2016, and the government had not implemented the agreements reached by the commission earlier, such as legislation on observing religious holidays.

In September, the government and the SOC formed a commission to implement the agreement between the government and the SOC. According to the MHRR, the implementation of the agreement with the SOC had likely been stalled for years due to the absence of a similar agreement between the state and the IC.

The MHRR stated in September it had launched a process to unblock the process of adopting an agreement between the IC and the government.

International and local nongovernmental organizations, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The IRC stated it believed the actual number of incidents was much higher but remained significantly underreported because members of religious groups feared that reporting them could trigger retaliation or further episodes.

In July, unknown persons fired several shots from a small-caliber weapon at a Catholic cross in Bisnje near Derventa. Authorities reported there were no victims; they failed to identify any suspects by year’s end.

On October 11, unknown persons vandalized Sultan Sulaiman’s Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina by breaking glass on two windows. The mosque was a designated national monument previously restored after being destroyed in the 1992-95 war. Mirnes Kovac, a columnist for Al Jazeera Balkans, tweeted: “This is just one more sign of the dramatic rise of ultranationalist forces among the Serb population in the Balkans.” Mayor of Bijeljina Mico Micic condemned the incident and called for tolerance and coexistence in the municipality, as “animosities, mistrust, and instability can bring nothing good.”

In July, unknown persons sprayed insulting graffiti on the Saint Sunday Orthodox Church in the village of Dobric near Siroki Brijeg. According to the IRC, the incident led to a more proactive and constructive attitude towards the SOC by local authorities in Siroki Brijeg, who agreed to help what the IRC described as the small and long-neglected Orthodox returnee community in the village by initiating a project to provide regular water supply to its residences.

In February, vandals damaged the parish house next to the Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kotor Varos Municipality in the RS in February. Police arrested two suspects and initiated criminal proceedings against them, but further information on the case was unavailable at year’s end.

In January, police arrested two minors after they damaged a window and the facade of the Carsijska Mosque in Kozarska Dubica. The perpetrators later visited the imam, together with their parents, and apologized to him, offering to pay for the damage. The local mayor also offered to cover the cost of repairs.

In August, on the first day of the Islamic New Year, a dead pig was found in the yard of the mosque in Bratunac. The perpetrators were not identified.

In 2019, the OSCE mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to police. Incidents ranged from disturbing religious ceremonies with threats and shootings, to threatening religious leaders, to vandalizing graveyards and religious facilities through property destruction and graffiti.

On February 26, Danijel Rajkovic from Gacko was sentenced to one year in prison for provoking ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. In 2019, Rajkovic defecated in front of the mosque in Gacko and, on several occasions, sent threatening messages to the imam in Bosanski Novi. In addition to his prison sentence, the court ordered Rajkovic to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The Council of Muftis of the IC said it was continuing efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 11 active para-jamaats during the year, compared with 21 in 2019 and 64 in 2016.

In May, Cardinal Puljic, the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, held a memorial Mass for the victims of Bleiburg, where Yugoslav partisans killed thousands of Nazi-allied Ustasha fighters who fled the advance of the communist forces, as well as innocent persons, including women and children. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cardinal Puljic could not travel to Bleiburg, Austria, for the annual commemoration. The Jewish Community, Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and SOC criticized the Cardinal’s plans to hold the commemorative Mass, which also drew sizeable but peaceful protests in the center of Sarajevo. The press reported that the Mass, which was also broadcast by a regional television station, included a prayer for all victims of World War II, and there was no mention of Ustasha leaders. Online newspaper Crux Now reported that in an interview with local Catholic radio station Marija, Cardinal Pujlic said he had received threats related to the memorial Mass and that his church had prayed “for all the victims, not for Ustashas or criminals.”

The IRC organized six training sessions for youth, religious leaders, and IRC staff on usage of social media in promoting positive narratives (stories designed to promote interreligious and interethnic dialogue). The IRC continued to monitor and condemn attacks on religious leaders and buildings. It also organized “youth corners” – booths in public areas providing pamphlets and other information promoting the work and mission of the IRC – in Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May, the Ambassador met with newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees Milos Lucic and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, Ministry of Security, and MHRR and underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law for religious minorities.

Embassy officials had numerous meetings with the Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities and community leaders. The Ambassador had individual meetings or calls with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. Embassy officials continued to have small in-person meetings and representational events with the representatives of the Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish communities. At these events, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity and urged the religious communities to continue efforts to foster reconciliation and condemn intolerance and hate speech. The embassy reinforced its messages of support following the events and meetings on its social media platforms; the postings, particularly on Twitter, included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue and reconciliation.

The embassy continued supporting the Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding master’s program, a long-term project in its fourth year of operation, implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo). During the year, the embassy supported the program by financing a Fulbright fellow. The program is accredited by the Universities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. Its goal is to bring together professionals and students across ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thirty-five students enrolled in the program since its inception; there were 12 enrollees for 2020-21.

The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. In January, the embassy approved a one-year project to help the IRC better respond to hate speech and attacks against religious sites and officials. The project involved technical assistance to the IRC to improve its strategic messaging; increase cooperation with authorities, civil society, and the media; and bolster its outreach and networks among youth. Its main objective was to minimize the potential for escalation following negative events and send messages to prevent a cycle of recrimination and violence, while strengthening interreligious dialogue as a tool for promoting empathy and preventing violence. The project focused on five communities where hate-based attacks and speech had been prevalent in recent years (Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce).

The Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited the country in February and participated in the signing ceremony for the project with the IRC leaders. During her visit, the Deputy Administrator toured holy sites of all four traditional religions with leaders of the IRC. She congratulated the members of the IRC for their efforts to set a positive example of tolerance and collaboration across faiths by engaging citizens of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not provide a means for religious groups to acquire legal status. In September, the cabinet approved amendments that would provide religious groups with such status and enable them to conduct business in their name and gain certain tax benefits, but parliament did not act on these due to an unrelated lack of a quorum required to pass legislation. According to the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK), in multiple cases, public elementary schools denied female Muslim students in religious attire permission to attend classes. On September 4, the Kosovo and Serbian governments signed a list of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property. The SOC said a lack of constructive communication with some municipal governments prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from having free access to some SOC temples and graveyards. The SOC said the government failed to fully enforce the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZs) by failing to prevent road construction in the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ. The government halted the work in the SPZ in August following objections by the international community. Kosovo’s Implementation and Monitoring Committee (IMC), which includes the SOC, decided in November on the rehabilitation of the road in accordance with the law. Local and central authorities continued to ignore a 2016 court decision on SOC ownership of several land parcels next to the Decani monastery. Following a review, the government stated in August that, in many cemeteries managed by BIK under municipal contracts, a lack of municipal oversight enabled BIK to prevent other religious/nonreligious groups from conducting burial services according to their beliefs and to discriminate against religious minority groups. Kosovo Serb and Jewish communities said some municipalities did not properly maintain these communities’ cemeteries.

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents against religious sites or cemeteries during the year, compared with 61 in 2019. Police classified most of the incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites, although a few involved SOC and Catholic Church properties. According to the SOC, many incidents involving SOC religious sites were linked to Serb ethnicity as well as religion, and there were incidents not reported to police. In August, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that vandals damaged an SOC church in the Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, according to media and police, an SOC church was robbed in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic. On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-1999 conflict, staged a protest, as they had since 2015, in front of the local SOC church, leading displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members to again cancel a pilgrimage there. SOC officials again complained about negative media reporting and criticism of Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava Janjic, such as claims the abbot was blocking local development by denying Decan/Decani municipality use of its property and resources.

U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage the government to enact amendments permitting religious groups to acquire legal status, enforce mechanisms to protect freedom of religion, implement legislation and judicial decisions pertaining to SOC religious sites, and resolve SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including equal protection and property rights concerns, with religious and civil society leaders and encouraged religious tolerance and improved interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 95.6 percent of the population is Muslim, 2.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, with Protestants, Jews, and persons not answering or responding “other” or “none” together constituting less than 1 percent. According to the SOC and international observers, lack of financial support for the census and a boycott of it by most ethnic Serbs resulted in a significant undercounting of ethnic minorities of all religious backgrounds, including SOC members, Tarikat Muslims, and Protestants. Other religious communities, including Tarikat Muslims and Protestants, also contested the registration data, stating they distrusted the census methodology and believed it resulted in undercounts of their communities’ members.

The majority of Kosovo Albanians are Muslim, although some are Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). Almost all Kosovo Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkali, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma are Christian Orthodox. Nearly all ethnic Croats are Catholic.

According to BIK, most Muslims belong to the Hanafi Sunni School, although some are part of the Sufi Tarikat community. There is also a Sufi Bektashi religious community; no official estimate exists for the number of its adherents. Kosovo Albanians represent the majority in 28 of the country’s 38 municipalities, and Kosovo Serbs make up the majority in the remaining 10. Most SOC members reside in the 10 Serb-majority municipalities. The largest Catholic communities are in Gjakove/Djakovica, Janjeve/Janjevo, Kline/Klina, Pristina, and Prizren. Evangelical Protestant populations are located throughout the country, concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small Jewish communities in Prizren and Pristina.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; practice or abstain from practicing religion; and join or refuse to join a religious community. These rights are subject to limitations for reasons of public safety and order or for the protection of the health or rights of others. The constitution provides for the separation of religious communities from public institutions, including the right of religious groups to regulate independently their own organizations, activities, and ceremonies, and the right to establish religious schools and charities. It provides for equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral regarding religion, declares the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution states the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent violent and hostile provocations on racial, national, ethnic, or religious grounds. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.

The law on religious freedom states, “All religions and their communes in Kosovo, including the Kosovo Islamic Community, Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Hebrew Belief Community, and Evangelical Church (the five “traditional” religious communities), shall be offered any kind of protection and opportunity in order to have rights and freedom foreseen by this law.” The constitution provides for rights and protection for all citizens, including maintaining, developing, and preserving their religion using their own language. The constitution also states religious communities have the right to establish religious schools and charitable institutions with the possibility of being funded with government financial assistance “in accordance with the law and international standards.” The constitution provides guarantees of freedom and pluralism of media. It guarantees all ethnic communities access to public media. Additional rights for religious groups include establishing and using their own media, maintaining unhindered peaceful contacts with persons outside the country with whom they share a religious identity, and having equitable access to public employment.

The constitution guarantees 20 of 120 seats in parliament to representatives from ethnic minority communities, which are often associated with a single majority religious group, such as Muslims or Orthodox Christians. It also stipulates the adoption, amendment, or repeal of all laws pertaining to religious freedom or cultural heritage requires approval by a majority of the parliamentarians representing minority communities, as well as by a majority of all parliamentarians.

The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.

The law stipulates there is no official state religion, but it lists the five “traditional” religious communities that receive extra protections and benefits, including reduced taxes.

The law does not require registration of religious groups, but it also does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. Without legal status, religious communities may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, or access the courts as a collective entity. Individual congregations or individuals, however, may do so and perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law generally does not protect these buildings as property of a religious community, but rather as the private property of citizens or nongovernmental organizations. SOC property is an exception; the law on SPZs acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas within the SPZs.

The law stipulates freedom of religious or nonreligious practice and the rights to establish humanitarian/charity organizations, accept voluntary financial contributions from individuals and institutions, and engage in national and international communication for religious purposes.

The law provides safeguards for sites of religious and cultural significance and prohibits or restricts nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the IMC is responsible for arbitrating disputes between the government and the SOC concerning SPZs and other matters related to protecting the SOC’s religious and cultural heritage. The IMC is a special body originating from the 2007 Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (also known as the Ahtisaari Plan) and established by law. IMC members include the Ministry of Economy and Environment (cochair); Special Representative of the European Union (cochair); Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport; SOC; and OSCE.

Municipalities are legally responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all public cemeteries, including those designated for specific religious communities.

According to the law, “Public educational institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.” This law is unenforceable in schools operated under Serbian government-run parallel structures, over which the Kosovo government has no control.

A Ministry of Education and Science (MES) administrative circular on the code of conduct and disciplinary measures for elementary and high school students, which carries the force of law, prohibits students from wearing religious “uniforms” on elementary and secondary school premises.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In September, the cabinet approved and sent to parliament amendments to the law on religious freedom that would permit religious groups to acquire legal status, conduct business and acquire real and personal property in their name, open bank accounts, and gain import tax benefits. At year’s end, parliament had not voted on the amendments; there was a persistent lack of a quorum due to the COVID-19 pandemic and boycotts by Kosovo Serb parliamentarians. Absent enactment of the legislation, all religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts registered to individuals instead of communities. In addition, communities such as the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said they continued to be taxed as for-profit businesses.

According to BIK, there were multiple cases in which elementary schools denied access to female Muslim students as a result of the enforcement of the MES administrative circular prohibiting “religious attire” on school property. Imam Labinot Maliqi, head of the nongovernmental organization Kosovo Center for Peace, reported that two female elementary school students, one in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje and the other in Gjakova/Djakovica, were denied entrance to school for wearing a hijab. School officials reversed their decision after the Kosovo Center for Peace inquired into the situation. In July, according to Maliqi, MES officials told him the MES was committed to reviewing the religious attire prohibition. The ban remained in place at year’s end.

Muslim community representatives said there were cases of hiring discrimination against Muslim women who wore religious attire during the year, but they did not cite any examples.

On September 4, Kosovo and Serbia signed lists of commitments in Washington, D.C., in which the government of Kosovo pledged to protect and promote freedom of religion, including renewed interfaith communication, protection of religious sites, and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision upholding the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that recognized the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land in the monastery’s vicinity. In November, the SOC appealed to the Kosovo Cadastral Agency; its decision was pending at year’s end. NATO troops in the country continued to provide security at the Decani Monastery.

In August, the Decan/Decani municipality began road work within the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ in violation of the law. The government halted the work following international criticism. In November, the IMC and the Decan/Decani municipal government endorsed an Italian-brokered arrangement that adhered to the law for the rehabilitation of the road. The arrangement included the development of both a bypass road external to the SPZ boundaries, which would connect Decan/Decani to Montenegro, and a separate local road within the SPZ. The proposed road work had not begun by year’s end.

In July, Pristina Municipality issued a construction permit for, and construction began on, a Grand Mosque in Pristina, funded by the Turkish government. Some citizens opposed construction of the mosque, saying its design was based on an archaic Ottoman style rather than traditional Kosovo mosque architecture. Some local imams continued to state existing downtown mosques fulfilled the needs of their constituency and there was no demand for such a large mosque in the area.

Jewish community representatives again said local governments did not properly maintain Jewish cemeteries outside Pristina, including in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, Lipjan/Lipljan, Kamenice/Kamenica, Prizren, Mitrovice/Mitrovica, and Gjilan/Gnjilane, notwithstanding their legal obligation to do so.

With the government’s assent, the OSCE continued to monitor the implementation of legislation on protection of SPZs around SOC religious and heritage sites. The Police Unit for the Security of Religious and Cultural Heritage Buildings continued to provide 24-hour security to 24 SPZs countrywide.

At year’s end, Pristina Municipality and the Jewish community continued to disagree on a suitable location for a synagogue for which the municipality had issued a construction permit in 2016.

The SOC said the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency continued to dispute SOC ownership of the property the agency has used since 2001. The SOC stated the agency owed rent for use of the property. The SOC received partial payment for the rent in 2018 but received no further compensation. At year’s end, neither the SOC nor the agency had initiated legal action over the dispute.

According to BIK, the central government continued to provide some funding for Islamic education in the BIK madrassah in Pristina and its branches in Prizren and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some University of Pristina law faculty members said they believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.

KPEC stated the Kosovo Immigration Office continued to deny recognition of non-Kosovo missionaries engaged by the Church. KPEC said the Customs Service sought payment of 3,393 euros ($4,200) in taxes for humanitarian aid KPEC received from abroad during the year, while some other religious communities, such as BIK, were exempt from the taxation. KPEC said the Customs Service continued to insist on the tax payment despite intervention by then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in 2019. In addition, according to KPEC, some businesses did not respect the value-added tax exemption for goods purchased by their churches due to religious prejudices.

The SOC continued to complain about public statements made by Decan/Decani municipal leadership against Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava for his opposition to illegal road construction within the Decan/Decani SPZ.

The Water Services Regulatory Authority stated it waived water utility fees during the year for religious buildings belonging to all religious communities, in contrast with the previous year, when it billed some religious communities, such as Protestants and Tarikats.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

National police said they received reports of 57 incidents targeting religious sites during the year, compared with 61 incidents in 2019. All the incidents were against property. Of the 57 incidents, 45 took place at Muslim, eight at SOC, and three at Catholic sites, while one targeted property not belonging to a specific religious group. Police classified most of the other 56 incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. There were also incidents involving religious sites that were not reported to police. Police did not classify any of the 57 incidents reported as religiously motivated. The SOC, however, stated that some of the incidents involving its property in Kosovo were religiously and ethnically motivated. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.

The SOC again stated media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year. For example, in September, the SOC Archdiocese of Raska-Prizren issued a press release condemning an article in the newspaper Koha Ditore by history professor Bedri Muhadri that, the press release stated, claimed without evidence that SOC holy sites in Kosovo were actually medieval Albanian and usurped Roman Catholic churches.

BIK again stated there were media reports and statements on social media that portrayed Muslims negatively. In July, a newspaper columnist condemned strong public support for construction of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, writing that Muslims in the country “no longer have any connection with Illyrians,” and adding that “investment in mosques is taking Kosovo away from its European path.”

BIK reported one case of a Muslim woman denied an employment contract in the private sector but did not provide details. According to BIK, devout Muslim women were reluctant to report cases of religious discrimination.

On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-99 conflict, staged a protest in front of the local SOC church, where displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members had planned a pilgrimage on Orthodox Christmas. Media reported that organizers again cancelled the pilgrimage, citing security reasons. Such protests have taken place since 2015.

In August, vandals damaged an SOC church in Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, media reported an SOC church was desecrated and burglarized in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic.

There were reports of incidents of vandalism throughout the year at Serb cemeteries. Serbian-language media reported that on January 10, an unknown individual placed an Albanian flag on the fence surrounding a Serb cemetery in Gornji Livoc, near Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality. In February, Serbian-language media reported unknown individuals vandalized a Serb cemetery in the village of Zac in Istog/Istok Municipality on the eve of a memorial service. According to media, the vandals knocked over and broke monuments, cut down centuries-old trees that then fell on gravesites, and removed the fence. The church in the cemetery was reportedly also damaged. In November, Serbian-language media reported that several monuments were demolished at a Serb cemetery in the village of Frasher/Svinjare, near Mitrovice/Mitrovica South, prior to a memorial service. According to media reports, in June, a group of Kosovo Serbs visited a cemetery in Mitrovice/Mitrovica South where more than 80 percent of the tombstones had been destroyed. Some media also published pictures of the cemetery, showing broken tombstones and overgrown foliage.

In April, tombstones on graves of members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian ethnic communities were broken in Rahovec/Orahovac Municipality. Mayor Smajl Latifi publicly condemned the incident and called for immediate police intervention in finding the perpetrators. Then-Minister for Communities and Returns Dalibor Jevtic referenced previous instances in the municipality and pledged to support families affected by the incident. The OSCE also issued a statement of condemnation.

In December, Skenderaj municipal officials reported that vandals destroyed a plaque inscribed with the words “Our Church” in the town of Gjytet in Syrigana. The site is a state-protected cultural heritage site. No specific religious group claimed ownership of the plaque.

According to Catholic Church officials, reports in 2019 of the destruction of religious symbols at a Catholic church in Janjevo village proved to be inaccurate.

BIK leadership stated a group of Mitrovice/a citizens lobbied for reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovice/a North that Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999, but that opposition from local Kosovo Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.

Religious group leaders continued interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with central and local authorities, to discuss issues such as cemetery maintenance, tax and custom duties exemptions for humanitarian activities by religious communities, and amendments to the law on religious freedom. One outcome of this engagement was improved maintenance of cemeteries by some municipal governments. The OSCE also advocated for inclusion of representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which meet to discuss security issues.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed and advocated with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, officials from the MES, the Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Sports, and political party leaders from the Democratic Party of Kosovo, Self-Determination Movement, Democratic League of Kosovo, and Srpska List for enactment of amendments to the law on religious freedom that would allow religious groups to acquire legal status. They also urged government officials to respect religious freedom and pluralism and increase their communication with religious groups. The Ambassador and other embassy officials urged central and local government officials, including the Prime Minister, to respect the law on SPZs, particularly in the case of the road near Visoki Decani Monastery. Embassy officials advocated with all levels of government for implementation of the 2016 Constitutional Court decision ordering the registration of ownership of 24 hectares (59 acres) of land to the Visoki Decani Monastery, urging the government and the judiciary to hold local officials accountable.

Embassy officials met with all major religious communities and discussed the amendments to the law on religious freedom, social issues of common concern, religious freedom issues, and governmental relations with religious communities. The embassy also funded interreligious dialogue among youth of all major religious groups and nonreligious organizations in the country.

The embassy frequently posted messages on social media in support of religious freedom, for example, marking International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, calling on the government to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision on the case involving the Visoki Decani Monastery land dispute, and urging all parties to adhere to the law on SPZs.


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 that the laws governing their legal status were inadequate. The SOC organized massive nationwide protests and prayer marches against a religion law – and particularly its property provisions – that went into effect in January. The new law requires religious groups to provide proof of ownership of certain religious property or lose title to it. Religious communities are not required to register but must do so to own property and hold bank accounts. The SOC refused to register. On December 29, the newly elected parliament passed amendments to the law that would remove the proof of property ownership provisions and alter the requirement that existing religious groups register to acquire legal status. The amendments had not become law by year’s end. Authorities arrested and detained SOC clergy on multiple occasions for what they said were violations of COVID-19 public health restrictions. Religious groups continued to dispute government ownership of religious properties and the transfer of cemetery ownership to municipalities or other entities. The SOC challenged transfers of properties that it said it owned by municipal authorities to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and private individuals. The SOC and MOC continued to dispute ownership of 750 Orthodox sites. A public school teacher in Bar was widely condemned and dismissed for inviting her students to participate in a prayer service at an SOC church. The SOC said the Ministry of Interior continued to deny visas to its clergy.

Following August parliamentary elections, there were reported acts of violence against religious groups and their members, including the shooting of an Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM) member’s home, the smashing of windows of ICM facilities, and threatening messages and acts of intimidation targeting Bosniaks and other Muslims in Pljevlja and other cities with religiously diverse populations. Religious and political leaders across the spectrum condemned the attacks and issued statements of support. After being criticized for slow progress in investigating the cases, police arrested three suspects for writing anti-Bosniak graffiti in the Pljevlja attacks on October 30.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed the law on religion and relations between religious groups and the government and advocated religious tolerance with the President and other government officials, including officials in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the Ministry of Justice, Human, and Minority Rights (MHMR), until December known as the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, and mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, and with religious representatives. After the attacks on the Muslim community following the parliamentary elections in August, the Ambassador met with the head of the ICM to express her concern and support.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 610,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 72 percent of the population is Orthodox, generally belonging to either the SOC or MOC, although the census does not differentiate between Orthodox groups. According to 2020 data from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) the Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM), the SOC is estimated to account for approximately 90 percent of the Orthodox population, while the MOC makes up the remaining 10 percent. The 2011 census reports 19.1 percent of the population is Muslim, 3.4 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.2 percent atheist. In addition, 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 the World Jewish Congress, approximately 400 to 500 Jews live in the country. The next census is scheduled for 2021.

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 in the northern towns of Rozaje, Pljevlja, Bijelo Polje, Petnjica, Plav, and Gusinje near the border with Serbia and along the eastern and southern borders with Kosovo and Albania.

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 a 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 ($250-$19,600) 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 of 600 to 8,000 euros ($740-$9,800) 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 on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities (religious freedom law) went into effect on January 8, replacing a law from 1977. The new law removed previous exemptions for unregistered religious groups to maintain status as legal entities. It also added provisions requiring religious communities to prove ownership of certain religious buildings and properties built or acquired prior to December 1, 1918, or risk their loss to the state.

Under the 1977 law, religious groups formed after 1977 were obligated to register, although there was no penalty specified for failing to do so. Groups formed prior to 1977 were exempted from registration. Under the new law, religious groups are not required to register, but all must do so to acquire legal status. Only groups with legal entity status have the right to own or rent property; hold bank accounts in their own name; hire employees; receive a tax exemption for donations and sales of goods or services directly related to their religious activities; and receive judicial protection of their community, members, and assets. The new law states that unregistered religious groups may operate freely with the right to practice their faith, including proselytizing and receive donations. Unregistered groups remain eligible to receive financial or other assistance from the state through the MHMR.

To register under the new law, a religious group must have at least three adult members who are citizens or have legal status in the country, provide its name and organizing documents, the names of its officials, address of the group’s headquarters, and 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.

The new law provides two different registration procedures. Religious communities registered with local and federal authorities under the 1977 religion law and active in the country on January 8 were entered into the inventory of existing religious communities by submitting an application to the MHMR within nine months of enactment of the law (i.e., by October 8, 2020). For those religious groups not registered under the previous law, a designated representative must submit an application for registration containing the prerequisites specified by the MHMR.

The new law also requires religious entities to prove ownership of religious buildings and land they use that were built or acquired with public revenues or were owned by the state prior to December 1, 1918. It also requires evidence of ownership for religious buildings constructed through the “joint investment” of citizens (i.e., funded in part through private citizen contributions) prior to December 1, 1918. In instances where religious entities cannot provide evidence of ownership, the law stipulates the property or land in question becomes the property of the state as part of the country’s cultural heritage. The new law does not define what constitutes “proof of ownership” and leaves the question of adjudicating ownership within the existing framework of laws on administrative and civil procedures.

Under the new law, the government institutions responsible for property affairs are obliged to create, by January 8, 2021, a list of religious buildings and land deemed to be owned by the state and to submit a request for registration of ownership rights in the real estate registry, after which the real estate registry will inform the religious communities. The law does not establish processes for redress or compensation in instances where the state reclaims a religious property or land.

There are 16 religious groups registered or enrolled (the latter term applies to groups that originally registered under the 1977 law) within the register of religious groups overseen by the MHMR: the MOC; the ICM; the Roman Catholic Church (Archdioceses of Bar and Kotor, registered as two groups); the Jewish Community of Montenegro (JCM); the Christian Adventist Church; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Diocese of Podgorica-Duklja of the Orthodox Church of Montenegro; the Church of Christ’s Gospel; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Montenegro; the Evangelical Church of the Word of God; the Christian Lighthouse Center; the Mosaic Christian Community; the Biblical Christian Community; the Community of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and the Baha’i Community in Montenegro. The SOC has not applied for registration.

The government has agreements with the ICM, JCM, and Holy See that further define the legal status of the respective groups and regulate 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 JCM 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 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 does not provide for religious groups to file for restitution of, or compensation for, property confiscated during the communist era. Individuals and private entities may file such claims.

The Directorate for Relations with Religious Communities within the 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 oversees 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 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, including public schools. Allegations of such violations in the private sector are outside of the jurisdiction of the ombudsman and must be litigated in court. The ombudsman 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 ($610-$3,100). Government agencies generally implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. If necessary, the courts may enforce such recommendations.

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

The constitution states that 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

Demonstrations against the new religion law, which began before parliament approved it in late December 2019, continued almost daily through January 14 (Orthodox New Year’s Day). The SOC stated that the new requirement for evidence of property ownership would unfairly allow the state to assert ownership of certain SOC religious buildings and land, resulting in “confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities.” SOC officials said the law did not specify what constituted acceptable “evidence of ownership” and expressed concern the state would deem the SOC’s existent property ownership documents as insufficient.

The SOC also protested the new registration procedures, arguing that by registering, the SOC would be legally recognized as a newly established religious group rather than one that existed before the new law. The SOC organized protest marches on January 10. At that time, the SOC organized a new form of peaceful protest: the litije, or manifestations of piety in the form of prayer marches or gatherings. Litije were most commonly held in places with large populations, such as Podgorica, Niksic, Berane, and Bar, as well as in communities with strong ties to opposition parties, including the coastal city of Budva, and with majority ethnic Serb populations, including the northern cities of Bijelo Polje, Zabljak, and Pluzine. Initial SOC estimates placed the total number of persons in simultaneous, countrywide protests on certain days at 50,000, later increasing to 100,000 to 200,000 participants; government sources put the number at 27,000 to 63,000. Officials from the then-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) stated that many participants were foreigners, particularly Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The SOC committed to organizing litije every Thursday and Sunday following Orthodox New Year’s Day until the religious freedom law was repealed. According to media reports, SOC leaders decried the religious freedom law as a “blatant confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities,” with “Save Our Shrines!” becoming the rallying cry among their supporters.

In response to anonymous calls for violence on social media sites such as Facebook, the SOC, police, and government officials coordinated efforts to prevent the protests against the new law from devolving into violence, according to published statements from these officials. The Metropolitan of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, Amfilohije Radovic, and the SOC Episcopal Council in Montenegro issued repeated calls to keep litije peaceful and apolitical. On January 24, the SOC Episcopal Council issued a statement reasserting the importance of the peaceful nature of the protests. The statement asked protesters to behave with dignity and peace, in opposition to calls among some protesters on social media for escalatory violence. Prior to each litija, SOC clergy repeated these calls. SOC officials also asked Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to cancel a visit on Orthodox Christmas Eve to avoid the risk of violence. Vucic cancelled the visit. On January 7, National Police chief Veselin Veljovic praised SOC actions in keeping the peace and appealed to the public for calm, warning against what he called potentially malign influence.

On February 14, then-Prime Minister Dusko Markovic and several ministers met for five hours with Metropolitan Amfilohije and other SOC officials on the religion law but failed to reach agreement. Government and SOC representatives met again on March 11 but again failed to agree on the issue of property ownership. Both sides called the talks “respectful and open” but suspended further dialogue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also in March, the SOC suspended the litije in accordance with government COVID-19 public health measures prohibiting public gatherings, including for religious purposes. Instead, the SOC hosted “virtual litije” on Facebook, where each week 22,000-66,000 participants participated and asked questions of Metropolitan Amfilohije and other SOC clergy. After a brief suspension of the public health restrictions, the government reinstituted them in June, again barring religious gatherings in public places but permitting them on the property of a group’s religious facilities.

On April 12, police detained Metropolitan Amfilohije along with several other high ranking SOC priests for violating mandatory COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings during a Palm Sunday liturgy at a Podgorica monastery. Police questioned the SOC officials and released them without charge. The SOC and several pro-SOC opposition political parties criticized the detention; Dragan Krapovic, a leader of the then-opposition party Democrats Montenegro, described it as the “instrumentalization of police for the purpose of achieving political goals.” The SOC also criticized police for singling out an SOC priest and publicly identifying him by his occupation and nationality after police detained him on April 9 for violating the ban on intercity transit. In July, the priest was forced to leave the country after authorities rescinded his temporary residence permit.

On May 12, police detained Joanikije Micovic, the SOC Bishop of Budimlje and Niksic, and eight other SOC priests for violating COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings following a procession marking the feast of Saint Vasilije of Ostrog, the patron saint of their municipality, Niksic. The SOC had cancelled the traditionally large procession in accordance with public health restrictions, but several thousand SOC believers, whom Andrija Mandic, one of the leaders of the then-opposition alliance Democratic Front (DF), encouraged to attend in a speech in parliament, gathered at the Church of St. Basil and called for a litija. Church officials said they subsequently supported the litija because they feared “what might happen” if the parishioners marched alone. After hours of questioning, prosecutors ordered that Bishop Joanikije and the eight other priests be held in detention up to 72 hours, the maximum duration permitted by law before charges must be filed, for violation of public health measures against public gatherings.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the police station where the bishop was held and shouted insults at police. SOC protesters also gathered in Bijelo Polje, Pljevlja, and Berane, and on the road between Tivat and Budva. Police briefly detained two priests for questioning in Bijelo Polje and one in Tivat.

Between May 13 and 15, thousands of SOC supporters organized protests, calling on authorities to release Bishop Joanikije and the priests. In Niksic, Pljevlja, and Andrijevica, protesters threw stones and shouted “Ustashe” (a reference to World War II fascists) at the police officers, who in some cases used tear gas to disperse the protests. Police arrested and detained, and prosecutors filed charges against, several dozen individuals responsible for the protests, in which more than 30 police officers and dozens of citizens were injured. Protests without major incidents also took place in Berane, Bijelo Polje, Budva, and Podgorica, although police also arrested or charged with misdemeanors dozens of persons in those cities.

On May 14, then-Prime Minister Markovic addressed the public, stating the mass gatherings and protests were brutal attacks on the country and carried unforeseeable consequences; he also said the SOC was working for foreign interests and endangering public heath under the guise of religious rights and freedoms. Metropolitan Amfilohije urged the government not to create divisions and called on the people to refrain from provoking authorities, while calling for the immediate release of Bishop Joanikije and the SOC priests and for police and judicial authorities to end “violent behavior towards peaceful and nonviolent protesters.”

On May 15, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Niksic released Bishop Joanikije and the eight other priests. The head of the Basic Prosecutor’s Office, Stevo Sekaric, said he was seeking to indict the bishop and eight priests for violating the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures. The clerics’ defense lawyers told media that the government’s preventive measures were unconstitutional and that the priests did not commit any crimes.

Upon his release, Bishop Joanikije was greeted by several thousand SOC supporters and said, “The fight will continue, as we want freedom of religion, rule of law, and the constitution and laws to be observed.” On May 16, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Niksic proposed an indictment against the clergymen, which the Basic Court in Niksic accepted, but the subsequent preliminary hearing was postponed three times. The court had not rescheduled a new hearing by year’s end.

On June 12, then-Prime Minister Markovic announced that he and President Milo Djukanovic had spoken with Metropolitan Amfilohije and Bishop Joanikije on June 4 and proposed suspending implementation of the religious freedom law until the Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights issued opinions on it. Markovic also offered to revive expert talks immediately. Amfilohije, Joanikije, and the SOC Episcopal Council rejected the offer, stating that it was part of political campaign which sought to enlist the SOC in the creation of the “party church.” Later, the SOC’s legal expert team characterized the offer as illegal, stating the government had no mandate to suspend the implementation of any law. In the end, the government did not ask the Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights to review the law.

On June 14, the SOC resumed the litije, the first of which had an estimated 5,000 participants nationwide. Many of the gatherings surpassed the 200-person limit that the government had set for public gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 2,000 persons protested in Podgorica alone. Police made no arrests or attempts to disband the gatherings but called in 14 SOC priests from across the country for questioning and later detained Father Mirceta Sljivancanin, head priest of the Podgorica Cathedral, and Father Zeljko Calic of the Danilovgrad parish. Both priests had signed the request to hold a protest as its organizers. The prosecutor’s offices in Podgorica and Danilovgrad ordered 72-hour detentions for violating COVID-19 restrictions. The priests were released after approximately 22 hours, after the investigative judges revoked the detention orders and permitted the priests to defend themselves outside of police custody.

Metropolitan Amfilohije accused the DPS of taking the two priests into custody for political reasons and said he personally would sign the registration for the June 21 litija. According to unofficial sources, an estimated 23,000 SOC supporters across the country participated in that litija. At the litija in Podgorica, Amfilohije called on government supporters to reconsider whether to vote for those who insist on “a lawless law.” The SOC issued a press statement denying it was interfering in politics, but the DPS dismissed its denial as “ridiculous.” On June 22, the Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Podgorica filed criminal charges against Amfilohije, as a formal organizer of a gathering of more than 8,000 persons in Podgorica, for violating COVID-19 preventive measures. No hearing was subsequently scheduled, however. After six hours of questioning – the maximum duration permitted by law – at the police station in Podgorica, police released Amfilohije, who expressed “disgust” that authorities were treating the SOC and its priests like “criminals.” The SOC’s defense lawyer filed a complaint against the prosecutor, Nikola Boricic. Boricic stated that he had requested Amfilohije’s release after approximately three hours of questioning, but police had held him longer.

On June 25, Amfilohije led several thousand SOC supporters in a litija in the coastal town of Tivat in contravention of the government’s preventive measures regarding public gatherings. He again urged the government to withdraw the religious freedom law, asserting that “only insane people” would vote again for the ruling parties in upcoming national parliamentary elections on August 30. Relatedly, in an interview with Croatian public broadcaster HRT, President Djukanovic said the SOC was “an instrument in the hands of Greater Serbia nationalism” that wished to put Montenegro “under Russia’s security and interest umbrella.”

In July, the SOC again suspended the litije due to a resurgence of COVID-19. Metropolitan Amfilohije and other SOC leaders, however, continued to criticize the DPS, while members of the DPS stated the SOC had revealed itself to be a political, rather than a religious, institution. On July 14, Amfilohije called on citizens to vote for those who did not “legitimize lawlessness” or support the “antichurch legislation.” In August, Amfilohije again invited all citizens to vote in the upcoming elections. At the same time, he repeated that the SOC neither belonged to any political coalition nor desired to interfere in the August 30 elections. Government officials accused SOC priests, the vast majority of whom were Serbian citizens, of religious coercion and of conducting a nationwide door-to-door campaign encouraging citizens to vote against the DPS.

On August 26, then-Prime Minister Markovic stated in an election campaign speech that after an expected electoral victory, he would respond “fiercely” to the SOC. In referring to the SOC demonstrations, Markovic stated they would be “endured” until August 30, after which they would no longer be “tolerated.” Markovic further stated that he would “open the borders” to those who “curse Montenegro,” saying that they had “no foundations here” and would be returned to their homes “where they came from.”

After the electoral victory of the opposition parties Za buducnost Crne Gore (For Montenegro’s Future), Mir je nasa nacija (Peace Is Our Nation), and Crno na bijelo (Black on White), mostly pro-DPS media stated there was a close relationship between then-Prime Minister-designate Zdravko Krivokapic and the SOC. According to the reports, there were rumors that Metropolitan Amfilohije had handpicked Krivokapic, a professor with no political background, who came to prominence only weeks before the election as the head of an NGO opposing the religious freedom law, to head the Za buducnost list. Krivokapic denied a special relationship with the Metropolitan and said he saw the country as a secular state.

While Amfilohije and Bishop Joanikije acted as mediators during an early discussion among members of the new majority coalition on the formation of a government, SOC officials stated that, except for the removal of the articles on property ownership from the religious freedom law, the Church had no interest in politics.

Other religious groups, including the Catholic Church and the ICM, said the issue of religious properties outside of the scope of the religious freedom law was a critical issue for them. Those religious communities stated they agreed on the need for religious property ownership to be regulated by clearly written laws, but they stated that those laws should be separate from the religious freedom law. The Catholic Church and ICM said that of particular importance was the issue of restitution of, or compensation for, property wrongfully seized by the current and previous governments from religious groups or their members. This issue was particularly common with respect to places of worship and cemeteries.

On December 29, parliament passed a revised bill on religious freedom (“revised bill”) that required the signature of the President and publication in the official gazette before entering into force. At year’s end, President Djukanovic had not signed the bill, and it had not become law. The revised bill would remove the requirement for religious communities to provide proof of ownership for religious land or properties held prior to 1918 and remove the stipulation that the government must generate a list of religious property that it believed to be of disputed ownership, stipulating that property disputes would be settled in accordance with the existing legal code.

The bill would also alter the provision that existing unregistered religious communities must register to obtain legal status. Instead, existing religious communities that had been operating in country as legal entities would be entered into either a registration book for existing religious communities or another registration book for new religious communities. Both books would exist within one “unified register” to be established three months after the law entered into force. All religious groups registered or enrolled under the existing 2020 law would be recorded in the book of existing religious communities. The criteria for registration would remain largely unchanged from the existing 2020 law.

In addition, the revised bill would, for the first time, legally recognize waqf, endowments made within the Islamic community, as a source of revenue for religious communities.

The MHMR stated the Ministry of Finance and the Property Administration had started the process of creating a list of all properties which might fall under the cultural heritage of the state. The requirement that the government compile this list and complete it by January 8, 2021, would be eliminated if the revised religious freedom bill became law.

The new government established after the August parliamentary elections cited the forthcoming January 8 2021 deadline as one of the reasons for the expedited approval process for the December revisions, which did not include a public comment period. Prior to parliament’s vote approving the revision of the law, the government stated it had invited members of the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, SOC, and MOC communities for consultations, asking them to share ideas or concerns. According to the government, all communities except the MOC accepted the invitation for consultations. Several religious groups said that, while the amendments in the December bill were an improvement over the existing law, they failed to address longstanding issues of property restitution and taxation. The ICM, Catholic Church, and JCM released a joint statement calling the comment period too short but citing their appreciation for the government’s efforts. SOC Bishop Joanikije in a December 22 interview stated that, under the new law, “no one is privileged, but all faiths are equal,” but added that under different circumstances, the SOC would “demand the complete overhaul of the discriminatory law.” The MOC condemned the revised bill, calling it “treasonous” and stating that it allowed “50 square kilometers of church land, 60 monasteries, and 650 churches to be registered as property of Serbia.”

On December 28, the day before the vote on the amendments to the religion law, thousands of protesters demonstrated against the bill in Podgorica, calling on parliamentarians to vote against the bill. According to press reports, one protest organizer, Nemanja Braticevic, was quoted as saying the new government “is handing Montenegrin cultural treasure to the Serbian Orthodox Church and to Serbia.” The protesters had the support of members of several opposition parties, including the former ruling party, the DPS, and the Social Democratic and Liberal Parties. Dragutin Papovic, a DPS parliamentarian, said the amendments discriminated against two-thirds of the country’s citizens and that “This government gives a monopoly to only one religious community and only one nation.”

Catholic Church officials stated that, as one of the largest property owners in the country, the Church was and continued to be engaged in numerous property disputes with the government and the SOC. The communist Yugoslav government confiscated many of the Catholic Church’s properties in Bar and Ulcinj, and the government had not restituted the properties or compensated the Church. Instead, according to Church officials, during the 1990s, the government registered some properties previously held by the Catholic Church as belonging to the SOC. Catholic Church officials also expressed concern about what it said was the SOC’s preoccupation with property acquisition. Church officials stated the SOC had designs on Catholic Church properties in Bar and Ulcinj. They added that after the SOC took over ownership and management in the 1990s of a cemetery in Ulcinj that had previously been divided into areas for Catholic parishioners, SOC believers, and nonbelievers, Catholics could continue to bury their dead there, but the SOC no longer permitted nonbelievers to do so.

The longstanding controversy between the SOC and the government over the “metal church” at the top of Mt. Rumija, which the SOC built without state approval on a site that observers said was of importance to Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims, and the SOC’s reconstruction, also without state approval, of the baptistry in the Monastery of Holy Archangel Michael on Prevlaka Island outside Tivat remain unresolved. On June 6, local media reported that the municipal council in Pljevlja, with government approval, had decided to sell property that included a mill the SOC said belonged to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. Opposition political parties challenged the sale, and SOC Bishop Atanasije of Milesevo threatened legal action if the sale went forward, stating that registration of the mill as a property of the municipality was illegal. The property continued to be available for purchase to the highest bidder but had not yet sold at year’s end. The SOC said it was gathering documentation attesting to its ownership of the mill. The SOC and opposition parties called the attempted sale a pilot project for the confiscation of SOC property under the religious freedom law.

On June 10, officials from the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism demolished what they said was an illegally constructed SOC dormitory at the Monastery of St. Basil in Briska Gora near Ulcinj. The ministry said that the SOC had not applied for a building permit and that “the building disturbed the ambient completeness” of an 18th century church. Authorities also filed criminal charges against Metropolitan Amfilohije and the SOC for the construction. The SOC questioned why the government deployed an antiterrorism unit to a site staffed by three nuns and stated that it had been in the process of addressing the building permit issue.

The local newspaper Dan reported that, on September 8, the Administrative Court of Montenegro declared the municipality of Cetinje would assume control of the SOC cemetery in Ceklici. The ruling confirmed a previous decision by the Ministry of Finance and the Property Administration authorizing the transfer of ownership. The SOC called the Administrative Court’s decision illegal, adding that the president of the Administrative Court was a DPS member who came from the Ministry of Justice.

The ICM continued to raise concerns about the past transfer of two Islamic cemeteries in Podgorica and Berane from the ICM to, respectively, the municipality of Tuzi and a local utility company. The ICM said it received a significant share of its revenue from funeral services it provided for worshippers, but with cemeteries under the control of municipal authorities, local governments were able to exert significant influence over the revenue stream of the ICM.

Because of COVID-19 health concerns, the government refused to grant permission for religious groups’ clerics to preside over burial services, limiting attendance to close family members. Both ICM and SOC officials expressed dissatisfaction with these restrictions.

On October 18, then-Prime Minister Markovic announced the government provided funding for the purchase of land to expand a municipally owned cemetery in Bijelo Polje dedicated to the ICM. The government paid 165,200 euros ($203,000) to the municipality of Bijelo Polje to expand the existing cemetery by 10,600 square meters (114,000 square feet).

On October 15, the then-national government approved a proposal by the municipality of Podgorica to transfer a parcel of land near the city center free of charge to the MOC to build a religious facility. According to the proposal, the value of the land was estimated at 658,920 euros ($808,000), and the MOC planned to construct a 4,848 square meter (52,200 square foot) facility. The SOC contested the proposal, stating it had evidence proving its prior ownership of the property, confiscated during the communist era. The municipality temporarily withdrew its proposal after the Basic Court in Podgorica, responding to a lawsuit filed by the SOC, ruled that the proposal should not be discussed until the legal status of the property was resolved. On December 17, the local council, consisting of representatives from the DPS, its coalition members, and the United Reform Action Party, voted to transfer the land to the MOC. On the same day, the new national government overrode the local council and reversed the previous government’s approval of the transfer, citing the parcel’s disputed legal status. Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic asked municipal authorities to cede a different parcel to the MOC. The basic court had not yet made a final ruling on the matter at year’s end.

On October 6, local media reported that Rada Visnjic, a teacher at the Jugoslavija primary school in Bar, contacted students from her class via social media and asked them to join her in a service at the SOC Church of St. Jovan Vladimir to pray for a good school year. The incident, which was contrary to a prohibition on religious activity in public schools, led to significant public discussion. The MHMR stated the teacher had deepened societal divisions by imposing her personal religious views on the children, and the Ministry of Education called on school authorities to sanction the teacher. School officials suspended Visnjic before making a final decision about the case. The school had previously suspended her in February for asking students to draw the tricolor flag that was the symbol of litije opposing the religious freedom law.

The NGOs Juventas and the Center for Civic Education called on authorities to take quick action against Visjnic, calling manipulation of children for religious purposes by teachers one of the most severe of abuses. Various political parties across the political spectrum, including the DPS, the Bosniak Party, and members of the new majority coalition, condemned her. The ICM stated it found Visnjic’s actions especially troubling, as she was in a position of authority over the students, and she didn’t give any thought about the effect her call would have on children who were of a faith other than Orthodox Christianity. The ombudsman’s office initiated an investigation of what it described as the violation of children’s rights and called on the public and the media “not to fuel the abuse of these or any other children.” On November 25, the school management informed the public that it had found Visnjic to be in breach of duty and had terminated her employment.

In February, the Army chief of staff, General Dragutin Dakic, issued an order specifying that, while soldiers were free to practice their faith, they could not participate in the litije, characterizing them as political protests. In May, the ombudsman issued an opinion that the order banning participation in the litije violated soldiers’ rights. In March, the army suspended soldier Darko Mrvaljevic and initiated disciplinary proceedings against him for participating in the litije. Mrvaljevic appealed to the ombudsman, who in September issued an opinion that the army violated Mraljevic’s right to freedom of assembly and association. The army subsequently allowed Mrvaljevic to return to duty while disciplinary proceedings continued.

Government officials continued to express public support for the Jewish community with messages expressing good wishes for Jewish holidays Passover and Yom Kippur. On September 27, President Djukanovic stated that members of the Jewish community were an inseparable part of all of the country’s common achievements and offered his firm support for building peace and fostering interfaith and interethnic dialogue. On December 11, the Minister of Justice, Human, and Minority Rights, Vladimir Leposavic, joined the President of the JCM for a Menorah lighting.

The SOC said the Ministry of Interior continued to deny visas to its foreign 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 158 legal cases open of priests who could not obtain public documents, identification cards, driver’s licenses, or work permits or could not access public health services or schooling.

On April 18, authorities ordered the expulsion of Pluzine parish priest Miroslav Mihailovic once COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted on grounds that he was a Serbian citizen who was not properly registered, despite having been in the country for nine years. Mihailovic had called on believers to come to the local church the day after the Orthodox Easter service to light candles, despite calls from SOC leaders to stay home. Media reported that police brought Mihailovic in for questioning for violating restrictive COVID-19 measures. Instead of pressing charges against him, prosecutors notified the parish that Mihailovic would need to leave the country after COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted, since he was a Serbian citizen living in the country without proper registration. In another case, priest Konstantin Dojic and his minor child were detained for seven days at the Ilino Brdo border crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina after being denied permission to enter the country. According to the SOC, the priest, who along with his son, were Canadian citizens, had served in Niksic for eight years. Police denied them access because Canada was not on the list of countries from which citizens could enter the country under COVID-19 restrictions. The ombudsman asked police authorities to allow entry of the minor child on humanitarian grounds and allow the father to enter on the basis of family reunification. After the seven days at the border, the authorities allowed them entry.

Several religious groups continued to express a desire for broader or clearer tax exemption rules and said they hoped to raise the matter with the new government. 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 JCM also raised the issue of VAT payments on their purchases and said it had asked the government to include a provision in the revised bill on religious freedom exempting the construction of religious shrines from VAT. The ICM said it had had to pay a sizeable VAT on imported funeral vehicles it had received as a donation.

In February, the Tax Administration published a multimillion-euro (multimillion-dollar) tax bill, including bank account information, that it had issued to the SOC, an act the SOC, economic analysts, and civic activists criticized as a breach of privacy. In July, the Tax Administration published only the total tax liabilities of the ICM, the SOC, and Catholic Church. All three religious communities contested the accuracy of the data. In response, the MHMR stated in October it had received inquiries from the religious groups regarding their outstanding tax bills and would seek to find a suitable tax payment model in the ensuing months.

The Catholic Church and ICM reported that banks had frozen their bank accounts as a result of the religious freedom law, which required religious groups to register to obtain legal status. According to the ICM, banks asked for its registration documentation, including its founding act, which the ICM was not required to provide, as it was already entered into the registry of existing religious communities. The affected religious communities stated that these issues lasted for six months, until the government had compiled a register of religious communities. The SOC stated its accounts were not frozen.

The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use for maintenance of religious shrines, educational or cultural projects, or social and medical insurance for clergy. Groups apply for funding to the MHMR Minister, who makes decisions based on the recommendations of a three-person commission that he appoints and that evaluates all funding requests. The MOC received 57,586 euros ($70,700), the ICM 49,493 euros ($60,700), the SOC 38,095 euros ($46,700), the JCM 18,500 euros ($22,700), the Catholic Church 25,000 euros ($30,700), and the Diocese of Podgorica-Duklja of the Orthodox Church of Montenegro 9,180 euros ($11,300). 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

During celebrations on August 30 marking the victory of opposition parties in parliamentary elections, there were reports of separate attacks on Bosniaks and their property in Podgorica, Niksic, and Pljevlja. On the morning of September 2, former Chief Imam of Pljevlja Samir Kadribasic announced that unknown assailants smashed windows at the office of the ICM in Pljevlja. Kadribasic told media that someone threw a message through a broken window warning that “The black bird will fly; Pljevlja will be Srebrenica.” Kadribasic raised concerns about future attacks on Muslims, particularly Bosniaks, and that the incident would prompt a negative response by Bosniaks both in Montenegro and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kadribasic asked that Minister of Interior Mevludin Nuhodzic and police take immediate action to investigate the attacks, stating the ICM would hold them directly responsible if they failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. The ICM in Pljevlja said unknown persons shot at the residence of an ICM member. No one was injured.

On September 2, Reis Rifat Fejzic, leader of the ICM, visited the sites of the attacks in Pljevlja. He called on the Muslims of Pljevlja to deal with the difficult political and security situation in a civilized way and not to fall prey to provocations by political factions. He also declared that the state must act to protect the Muslims of Pljevlja from acts of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of those in the 1990s.

The SOC and the JCM both issued statements calling the attacks on Muslims in Pljevlja an attack on all citizens of the country. Metropolitan Amfilohije added that the violence was “a great human shame” and appeared to be a deliberate provocation intended to disrupt relations among residents of Pljevlja based on religious affiliation. MHMR representatives also visited Pljevlja and met with residents and local officials. Political parties, the SOC, and the international community all condemned the attacks. Head of the Za buducnost Crne Gore electoral list and later Prime Minister-elect Krivokapic blamed the DPS for inciting the attacks, while the DPS blamed Krivokapic and Metropolitan Amfilohije.

The MHMR praised all the religious communities for coming together and calling for peace after the disturbing incidents. It also said that many members of Islamic community decided not to report incidents to police, as they feared that it would aggravate their situation.

As a result of a request from the NGOs Human Rights Action and Institute Alternative, police reported that, during the unrest between August 31 and September 9, authorities had only filed a total of two criminal charges against two persons for inciting national, racial, and religious hatred and aggravated bodily harm, and three misdemeanor charges against two persons for gross insult and especially insolent behavior and physical assault or physical confrontation. The NGOs made an appeal to police to find and identify the perpetrators of the reported incidents.

On September 29, the Basic State Prosecutor’s office in Pljevlja reported that an investigation of an assault on Muslim politician Sanin Rascic on the night of August 30 found that the assault was neither at the hands of those celebrating the election result nor motivated by ethnic hatred. The Basic State Prosecutor filed criminal charges against Rascic for causing panic among citizens by his statements. According to media reports, Rascic stated that on the night of the election, he felt great fear for himself and his family due to convoys of trucks with ship’s sirens circling the city and shouts of “Move out Bosniaks” being heard. Rascic identified his attacker, whom he said insulted and threatened him and attempted to remove him from his car. Rascic stated that, although he was uninjured, his car was damaged.

On December 17, at the trial in the basic court in Pljevlja, the prosecution cited what it said were discrepancies in Rascic’s account, including his identifying one attacker to police but later telling the media there were more. Police stated during the trial that Rascic appeared visibly frightened when identifying his attacker. Rascic pled not guilty and said media incorrectly reported his statement. The ICM stated that Rascic said he had previously experienced similar assaults and was considering seeking asylum in another country. The trial was scheduled to resume on December 25 but was postponed until February 2021.

On October 30, prosecutors announced the arrests of three members of an organized crime group on charges of inciting the attacks in Pljevlja and posting graffiti constituting hate speech against Muslims. In November, media reported that the high state prosecutor in Bijelo Polje brought charges in five cases. Four of the cases involved charges against a group of five individuals, while the fifth was against one or more unknown perpetrators. According to High State Prosecutor Husan Lukac, all five cases were in the investigative phase. In all cases perpetrators were charged with the criminal offense of inciting racial, religious, and national hatred.

The SOC reported that religiously motivated incidents in the village of Martinici in Gusinje, a municipality that is 94 percent Muslim, continued through the year. The SOC reported that on July 12, the gate of the ruins of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog was destroyed. Vandals had previously destroyed a cross placed on the ruins in 2019. The SOC restored the gate and the cross, but on September 22, unidentified vandals again tore down the cross. Police did not identify the perpetrators. According to an SOC report, a local priest in Gusinje also received death threats on June 24 due to his religion and ethnicity. The case was reported to police and the perpetrator was known, but no criminal charges were filed.

There was no progress in resolving disputes between the SOC and the MOC regarding the ownership of 750 Orthodox sites, most of which are held by the SOC. The two groups continued to celebrate religious holidays at separate locations under police protection.

On September 8, Metropolitan Amfilohije announced building or renovation plans for SOC shrines, including restoration of the Church of St. Peter of Cetinje at the top of Lovcen Mountain and construction of the Church of the Holy Trinity in an area between the Biljarda, a museum, and the government house in Cetinje. The SOC also posted plans on its website to rebuild the monastery on Briska Gora and to build a church in honor of Patriarch Gavrilo in his home village of Vrujci. Following those announcements, members of Patriotsko komitski savez (Patriotic Alliance of Komitas) put up a banner in Cetinje stating they would stop the Church’s renovation plans.

In September, the JCM elected a new president, Nina Ofner Bokan, to replace Djordje Raicevic. Ofner Bokan stated she would focus her efforts on strengthening the Jewish community, preserving the Jewish cultural and national identity, and promoting multiculturalism and social harmony.

On October 30, after the death of Metropolitan Amfilohije, the Holy Synod of the SOC appointed Bishop of Budimlje and Niksic Joanikije Micovic as the Administrator of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and Littoral. Following Amfilohije’s death, then-Prime Minister-elect Krivokapic called for a public day of mourning, stating that the country had lost “one of the greatest among us in this century.” Speaker of Parliament Aleksa Becic noted he hoped Amfilohije’s successor would not “walk the thorny paths that the Metropolitan, with his people, walked with dignity and pastoral care.” President Milo Djukanovic and then-Prime Minister Markovic both extended their condolences, with the former stating that the “overall activity of Metropolitan Amfilohije in Montenegro will be appreciated by history.” Thousands of persons attended Amfilohije’s funeral. On December 30, a mural of Amfilohije in Kolasin was vandalized. The new Metropolitan was expected to be elected in May 2021 by the Council of Bishops.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers regularly met 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 President Djukanovic to discuss relations between the government and religious groups, the new religious freedom law, and property restitution of religious groups.

On May 14, the Ambassador held an online Ramadan conversation with the leader of the ICM, Reis Fejzic, in lieu of the traditional iftar due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the topics discussed were the difficulties religious communities and the ICM faced due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Ambassador also met with the Reis on September 4 at the ICM madrassah in Tuzi to discuss the attacks on members of the Muslim community following national elections on August 30 and to express U.S. support for the community.

On December 10, the Ambassador participated in two Hannukah celebrations, lighting the menorah together with JCM President Bokan, and joining permanent Chief Rabbi of Montenegro Ari Edelkopf for an online celebration. At the former ceremony, the Ambassador discussed with President Bokan her views on the status of the Jewish community in the country.

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 new religious freedom law and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as their aspirations for the new coalition government elected on August 30.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and religious expression. It grants equality before the law for all individuals regardless of religious belief. An amendment to the constitution cites five religious groups that automatically receive tax exemptions and other benefits: the Macedonian Orthodox Church, Islamic Religious Community in North Macedonia (IRC), Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Jewish Community. Other religious groups must register to receive the same benefits. Registration applications by the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid (OAO), affiliated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community, a Sufi group, remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II, following a May 2019 European Commission (EC) report calling on the government to comply with previous European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings that the government should reconsider its earlier rejections of these groups’ applications. The Bektashi (Tetovo) again reported harassment of its members by the government and the IRC. The IRC said the government continued to show favoritism toward the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA), and smaller religious groups continued to report unequal government treatment compared with the five constitutionally named groups. In September, President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev sent public letters asking Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to bestow autocephaly on the MOC-OA, actions the OAO characterized as government meddling in religious affairs. On March 10, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion. On February 7, the governing political party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), in response to anti-Semitic statements on social media, condemned “all forms of hate speech, anti-Semitism, or any other direct or indirect humiliation or discrimination of individuals and groups.”

The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community continued to dispute the IRC’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate, the Harabati Baba Teqe, a complex the Bektashi (Tetovo) used as its headquarters. Media reported several incidents of theft, and the government reported one incident of vandalism against Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 12 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites in 2019. The government also reported one theft at a mosque. In January, the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Fund posted on social media their joint condemnation of hate speech and anti-Semitic comments. In May, the Jewish Community reported to authorities multiple anti-Semitic and hate speech postings by a Facebook group called “Ninurta Macedonia.” The investigation was pending at year’s end.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of religious minority groups, including Bektashis (Tetovo), Jews, and Evangelical Methodists.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent national census, in 2002, an estimated 65 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian and 33 percent Muslim. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. There are a small number of Sufi groups, including several Bektashi orders. Also according to the national census, other religious groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population includes Catholics, various Protestant denominations, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jewish Community estimates it has approximately 200 members.

The majority of Orthodox Christians live in the central and southeastern regions. Most Muslims live in the northern and western parts of the country. There is a correlation between ethnicity and religious affiliation: the majority of Orthodox Christians are ethnic Macedonian, and most Muslims are ethnic Albanian. Most Roma and virtually all ethnic Turks and ethnic Bosniaks are Muslim, and most ethnic Serbs and Vlachs are Orthodox Christian. There is also a correlation between religious and political affiliation, as political parties are largely divided along ethnic lines.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality of rights for all citizens regardless of religious belief. It grants freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their faith freely and in public, individually, or with others. The constitution also protects the religious identity of all communities. The constitution states restriction of freedoms and rights may not be applied to personal conviction, conscience, thought, or religious confession. An amendment to the constitution cites five religious groups that automatically receive tax exemptions and other benefits: the Macedonian Orthodox Church, IRC, Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, and Jewish Community. It stipulates these five groups, as well as other registered groups, are separate from the state, equal before the law, and free to establish schools, charities, and other social institutions. The law allows other religious groups to obtain the same legal rights and status as these five groups by applying for government recognition and registration through the courts. The constitution bars political parties or other associations from inciting religious hatred or intolerance.

The law defines hate crimes as criminal offenses against a person, legal entity, or related persons or property committed because of a real or assumed characteristic, including nationality, ethnic origin, and religion or belief, of the victim. Hate speech and hate crimes are punishable criminal acts and may result in harsher sentences for other crimes when hate crime elements are involved. Penalties range from one to 10 years in prison and a minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment for hate crimes leading to death.

Religious organizations may apply to register as a “church,” a “religious community,” or a “religious group.” These classifications are based on group size, internal organization, and internal hierarchy. The law treats these three categories equally, bestowing the same legal rights, benefits, and obligations on all of them. The government recognizes 38 religious organizations, including the five named in the constitution. The total consists of 18 churches, 10 religious communities, and 12 religious groups. Once registered, a church, religious community, or religious group is exempt from taxes and is eligible to apply for restitution of properties nationalized during the Communist era (provided the group or community existed during that era), government-funded projects, and construction permits for preservation of shrines and cultural sites. It may also establish schools. Unregistered groups may hold religious services or other meetings and proselytize, but they may not engage in certain activities such as establishing schools or receiving donations that are tax deductible for the donor, and they are not tax-exempt.

Skopje Basic Court II accepts registration applications and has 15 business days to determine whether a religious organization’s application meets the legal registration criteria. The criteria are a physical administrative presence within the country, an explanation of its beliefs and practices that distinguishes it from other religious organizations, and a unique name and official insignia. An applicant organization must also identify a supervisory body in charge of managing its finances and submit a breakdown of its financial assets and funding sources, as well as minutes from its founding meeting. The law allows multiple groups of a single faith to register. Leaders or legal representatives of registered religious groups must be citizens of the country.

The court sends approved applications to the Committee on Relations between Religious Communities and Groups (CRRCG), a government body responsible for fostering cooperation and communication between the government and registered religious groups, which adds the organization to its registry. The CRRCG has no oversight or ability to influence the registration process. If the court denies the application, the organization may appeal the decision to the State Appellate Court. If the appellate court denies the application, the organization may file a human rights petition with the Constitutional Court, the highest human rights court in the country. If the Constitutional Court denies the petition, the organization may appeal the case to the ECHR.

The law does not permit religious organizations to operate primary schools but allows them to operate schools at the secondary level and above. Religious high schools use their own curricula and are not subject to the Ministry of Education’s certification. Students in religious high schools are not permitted to take the required national matriculation examination (baccalaureate) and therefore are unable to enroll in universities. The ministry requires sixth-grade students and above to take one of three elective courses, two of which have religious content: Introduction to Religions and Ethics in Religion. According to the ministry’s description, these courses teach religion in an academic, nondevotional manner. Orthodox priests or imams, depending on demand from parents and students, usually teach the courses, with ministry consent, and the state pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education mandates that all teachers of these subjects receive training from accredited higher education institutions taught by professors of philosophy or sociology. If students do not wish to take a course on religion, they may take the third option, Classical Culture in European Civilization.

All foreigners who seek to enter the country to carry out religious work or perform religious rites must obtain a work visa before arrival, a process that normally takes approximately four months. The CRRCG maintains a register of all foreign religious workers, and various government offices may approve or deny them the right to conduct religious work within the country. The CRRCG issues the approvals for temporary residence permits and/or working visa requests for missionaries and religious workers on behalf of registered churches, religious communities, and religious groups; the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy verifies they do not violate the country’s labor laws; and the Ministry of Interior looks at security aspects. Unregistered groups may seek work permits and visas according to the normal procedure. Work visas are valid for six months, with the option to renew for an additional six months. Subsequent visa renewals are valid for one year. There is no limit to the number of visa renewals for which a religious worker may apply. Clergy and religious workers from unregistered groups are eligible for visas.

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

Government Practices

At year’s end, Skopje Basic Court II had not taken action to comply with the May 2019 EC full country report, which called on the government to implement earlier ECHR rulings to respect the rights of the OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community. In 2017, the ECHR ruled the government violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Convention) by rejecting the OAO’s earlier application for religious-group status. In 2018, the ECHR made a similar ruling regarding the Bektashi (Tetovo). The 2020 European Commission Progress Report, published in October, stated North Macedonia needed to implement the 2018 ECHR ruling.

Although the government compensated the OAO 9,500 euros ($11,700) for damages and court fees as required by the 2017 ECHR ruling in 2019, OAO authorities continued to state the government refused to register the group, interfered in the work of the judiciary in cases involving the OAO, and exerted pressure on the OAO to reapply for registration under a new name. The OAO cited a letter from Skopje Basic Court II in February requesting the OAO change its name because the court could not differentiate it from the MOC-OA. At year’s end, the OAO’s 2009 registration application, without a name change, remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II.

The government paid the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community compensation in June 2019 for damages and court fees as required by the 2018 ECHR ruling, but it took no further action in 2020. The group’s 2010 registration application remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II at year’s end.

According to government officials, the ECHR rulings did not change the country’s legal requirement that an applicant’s name be different from an already registered religious group; hence both the Bektashi (Tetovo) and the OAO needed to change or modify their names to register in court. According to these officials, the Bektashi (Tetovo) remained unregistered, mainly due to its unresolved property disputes with the IRC, the IRC’s interference with the courts, and because two other Bektashi communities were already registered, both in Kichevo. The officials said in the case of the OAO, registration had not been possible because it preferred to operate under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church and would not accept the removal of “AO” from its name, which the OAO considered historically important.

Skopje Basic Court II offered the OAO the opportunity to reapply with a new name in February, and the Bektashi (Tetovo) in March. Both applicants declined to consider a new name and asked the court to implement the respective ECHR rulings. There were no further developments in either case at year’s end.

In March, Skopje Basic Court II rejected the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community’s request to reexamine its registration application, based on the April 2018 ECHR ruling. The court’s October 2018 verdict stated it gave the Bektashi (Tetovo) a 30-day deadline to submit a new registration application under a name different from that of the two already registered Bektashi groups (in Kichevo). The Bektashi (Tetovo) refused and asked the court to instead implement the ECHR verdict. The court also gave the Bektashi (Tetovo) until December 15, 2019, to submit the necessary documentation and inform the court of its negotiations with the government regarding implementation of the ECHR’s ruling, which the Bektashi (Tetovo) declined to do.

The OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community said that, as unregistered communities, they continued to face discrimination and intimidation, such as lack of tax-exempt status, the inability to organize their own schools, and disparaging comments about them on social media. The OAO continued to accuse the government of bias against it and of failure to respect domestic and international law.

In June, the World Leader of the Bektashi Community, Baba Dede Edmond Brahimai, called on the government to immediately act to mend the infringement on the Bektashi’s (Tetovo) right to religious belief and property, urging then interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski’s government to implement (or comply with) the April 2018 ECHR ruling requiring the registration of the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community.

In January, the OAO called the Supreme Court’s December 2019 decision rejecting its request for an extraordinary review of the February 2017 Criminal Court ruling against defrocked Bishop Jovan Vraniskovski and two others for money laundering “inadmissible and unfounded.” The Supreme Court determined that Vraniskovski laundered and spent 8.6 million denars ($172,000) and that the property purchased with that money remained in the MOC-OA’s possession because Vraniskovski was an MOC-OA member at the time of purchase. In February 2017, the Criminal Court in Skopje sentenced Vraniskovski to 13 months in prison and two others to two-year suspended sentences. The appellate court upheld the criminal court’s ruling. The OAO stated the ruling was the result of government bias.

In March, the OAO said media had subjected its representatives to censorship for saying the government’s advocacy for MOC-OA autocephaly, which it began requesting in 2018, represented political interference in religious matters in violation of the country’s secular character. Additionally, OAO officials said their family members were unduly discriminated against in bureaucratic procedures for issuing certificates and travel documents.

During the year, Skopje Basic Court II received and approved three new registration applications. In June, it registered the “Bashkesia e Ehli Sunetit dhe Xhematit,” headquartered in Kumanovo and run by Sadulla Bajrami, a preacher many Sunnis said they considered controversial because they said he supported ISIS, which the CRRCG added to its registry. In December, the same court registered two groups: the Qadiriyya Badawi Group “Zakaria,” with headquarters in Kumanovo, and the “Dar al-Hadith” Islamic Salafi Community, headquartered in Skopje.

For the ninth year, the Bektashi (Tetovo) reported to police acts of harassment by individuals occupying the Harabati Baba Teqe compound in Tetovo as part of a property dispute with the IRC. Police were still investigating at year’s end. The Bektashi (Tetovo) stated these individuals stole equipment and kitchen utensils from the Bektashi (Tetovo) headquarters in Tetovo on the eve of the Sultan Nevruz spring holiday on March 22.

On May 19, Mayor of Gostivar Arben Taravari provided the IRC Mufti of Gostivar, Shaqir Fetahu, with property legalization acts for 28 Islamic religious buildings within the municipality, including for two Bektashi (Tetovo) teqes (shrines), both in the village of Vrutok. The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community said handing the property acts for teqes to the IRC, instead of the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community, was “unjust.”

The IRC stated the government treated the IRC as “its enemy,” showed favoritism toward the MOC-OA, and used a “selective justice” approach. The IRC said the government had restored less than 30 percent of property the state seized before gaining independence in 1991. Among the disputed properties was the Husamedin Pasha Mosque in Shtip, nationalized in 1955.

The IRC stated the government continued to deny a construction permit for a mosque in the ethnically and religiously mixed village of Lazhec, and that it continued to deny a permit to reconstruct a mosque in Strumica and the central mosque in Prilep, on the grounds they were cultural monuments under government, not IRC, jurisdiction.

In July, the IRC stated the government had favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique privileges, such as providing it with public properties free of charge and funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches.

The MOC-OA stated the municipality of Struga had still not ruled on an application, pending since 2013, for construction of an Orthodox church in the village of Oktisi.

Smaller religious groups continued to state the government treated them unequally and favored the religious groups listed in the constitution over others. They said Prime Minister Zaev, President Pendarovski, and other government officials often met only with the five constitutionally recognized groups.

On September 24, Prime Minister Zaev met with Archbishop Stefan and an MOC-OA delegation to discuss continued efforts to secure the MOC-OA’s autocephaly, a request Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I began reviewing in 2018. Zaev expressed support and readiness to encourage government institutions to complete denationalizing the Church’s property and protect its cultural heritage. The delegation thanked Zaev for his letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch, sent in September, and for advocating for the MOC-OA’s autocephaly. In January, former interim Prime Minister Spasovski and then former Prime Minister Zaev met with the Ecumenical Patriarch and in September, both President Pendarovski and Prime Minister Zaev sent public letters asking him to bestow autocephaly on the MOC-OA. The OAO characterized this as government meddling in religious affairs.

On September 21, parliament amended the Law on High School Education; however, issues related to certifying religious high schools, final exams, and the ability of students graduating from these schools to enroll in the country’s universities remained unaddressed through year’s end.

Some religious groups, parents, and Ministry of Education officials stated Orthodox priests and imams hired to teach the required nondenominational introductory courses on religion and ethics often emphasized the practice of their own religions instead of presenting a neutral overview of different faiths.

On March 10, the government adopted the IHRA 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion. The government tasked the Ministry of Education and Science, Bureau for the Development of Education, and Institute of Spiritual and Cultural Heritage of the Albanians (ITSH) to translate, within three months, the December 2019 IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust into the Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Serbian languages to disseminate to schools across the country.

In June, the ITSH launched a four-day online training course on Holocaust education for 45 elementary and high school teachers from around the country, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Minister of Education and Science Arber Ademi emphasized the importance of partnership and Holocaust education in the Balkans and noted this event was part of the strategy to incorporate Holocaust education within the formal state education system and to secure tools to implement it.

On January 6, political party leaders condemned anti-Semitic comments made on social media by Vidana Boskova Micevska, affiliated with the governing SDSM political party, against the then interim Minister of Labor and Social Policy and Jewish Community member Rashela Mizrahi. Micevska wrote on Facebook, “I don’t mind that Rashela joined a fascist party. I’m sure the Nazis also had Jews who fought for better welfare rights for the Jews.” On January 7, then former Prime Minister Zaev responded on Facebook, stating the heightened use of insults on social media was “unacceptable in any democratic society.” He called on SDSM members and supporters to “be responsible and refrain from hate speech, racism, and xenophobia, as well as any speech that may be perceived as anti-Semitic.”

Media widely publicized journalist Branko Trichkovski’s February 6 anti-Semitic tweet about Mizrahi, in which Trichkovski said Mizrahi “eats hummus made of dead Jews.” On February 7, the Ministry of Interior reported it notified the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Skopje of the incident. In a February 7 Facebook post, SDSM condemned “all forms of hate speech, anti-Semitism, or any other direct or indirect humiliation or discrimination of individuals and groups.” The government made no charges regarding the incident.

On March 18, the government declared a 30-day state of emergency, and on March 21, it implemented a nationwide curfew to contain the spread of COVID-19. Authorities took a series of measures to limit mass gatherings, which impacted religious groups. Some religious groups objected to the government restrictions. On April 18, a group of approximately 100 Orthodox followers ignored the restrictions and gathered in the Bigorski Monastery to celebrate Easter.

On May 7, the IRC announced its plans to reopen mosques for prayer beginning on May 12 due to the decreased number of COVID-19 cases. On May 10, the IRC issued preventive measures for worshippers, including disinfecting mosques, limiting sermons to 10 minutes, and banning gatherings before or after prayers. On May 9, the government appealed to the IRC to reconsider its decision to reopen mosques, and a government press release urged religious communities to refrain from organizing any gatherings. On May 7, hundreds of Orthodox worshippers joined a procession in Struga to celebrate St. George’s Day, in contravention of measures prohibiting gatherings.

The government called on MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan and IRC Reis Rexhepi to express concerns regarding the May 7 religious procession in Struga and the IRC’s announcement to reopen mosques, and urged them to call for worshippers to act responsibly as well as to condemn any behavior contravening government measures. The IRC, however, reopened mosques on May 12. Reportedly, the government avoided confronting the IRC regarding noncompliance with COVID-19 restrictions because police had not taken any action to prevent the Struga procession and the government did not want to be perceived as favoring one religious group over another. Sources stated that the government was reluctant to take any action after police did not prevent the litany in Struga, and that this was probably to avoid being perceived as biased toward the MOC-OA.

On June 4, the Public Prosecutor’s Office told the press it had opened a case based on public information against Povardarie Eparchy Bishop Agatangel for publicly calling on Orthodox believers from the cities and municipalities of Veles, Kavadarci, Negotino, and Gevgelija to visit churches and cemeteries for Pentecost, despite government COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

OAO officials said they and their family members were often targets of insults in media and victims of physical attacks by individuals considered close to MOC-OA. According to media, in October, cemetery personnel in Skopje-Gjorche Petrov denied a family’s request that an OAO priest perform funeral services and instead sent an MOC-OA priest. When a journalist asked why the request was denied, the MOC-OA priest verbally abused him.

The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community continued to dispute the IRC’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate with Turkish assistance, the Harabati Baba Teqe complex that the Bektashi (Tetovo) used as its headquarters, including in a letter written to then interim Prime Minister Spasovski in May. Bektashi (Tetovo) representatives continued to express concern the renovation of the complex would displace them from the compound entirely. The Bektashi (Tetovo) could not assert a claim of ownership to the compound because the group remained unregistered. At year’s end, the renovation project remained pending until completion of feasibility studies.

Media reported several incidents of theft from, and the government reported one incident of vandalism against, Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 12 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites in 2019. In January, police reported that unknown individuals disassembled and stole copper gutters from a mosque in downtown Gostivar City, in the western part of the country. In April, the CRRCG condemned the desecration of the Orthodox cemetery in the Kamnik section of Skopje and urged authorities to find and prosecute the perpetrators. An investigation of the incident continued through year’s end.

In February, the MOC-OA sent a letter to the leader of the Integra political party protesting the appearance of an MOC-OA church in the background of a political ad. In July, the Jewish Community issued a press release requesting political parties not use Jewish cemeteries and insignia in political campaign ads.

In December, the Helsinki Committee in the country registered 38 incidents of hate speech with a religious component during the year, compared with eight in 2019.

In January, the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Fund posted on social media their joint condemnation of hate speech and anti-Semitic comments. They called on citizens, political parties, and institutions to reject such rhetoric and to instead embrace a culture of respect by participating in Holocaust remembrance and education. In May, the Jewish Community reported to authorities multiple anti-Semitic and hate speech postings by a Facebook group called Ninurta Macedonia. A May 12 post from this group read, “Jews’ souls are the demons’ homes” and asked that persons avoid them because they were “a universal plague,” and further calling them “dirty, cruel, and inhumane.” The investigation was pending at year’s end.

The Holocaust Fund, an NGO, continued to work with the Ministry of Education and Science on a project to train educators to teach secondary school students about the Holocaust and Jewish history. The Holocaust Fund held four webinars for that purpose during the year.

In March, the Holocaust Memorial Center opened a multimillion-dollar permanent exhibition commemorating the country’s Jewish population and the 7,148 Jews sent to the Treblinka death camp during World War II; however, the exhibit remained closed to the public for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions. As in previous years, the center conducted Holocaust education programs in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Science, until the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials held meetings with government representatives, including Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski, Minister of Justice Renata Deskoska, and Deputy Prime Minister for European Union Affairs Bujar Osmani, to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, such as improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups.

The Ambassador discussed interfaith tolerance and cooperation with religious leaders and the importance of open dialogue with faith groups during formal and informal meetings. In February, the Ambassador engaged with a group of religious and civil society leaders from the MOC-OA, IRC, Jewish Community, Bektashi (Tetovo), Evangelical Methodists, and civil society leaders who had participated in a U.S. exchange program to discuss religious freedom, respect for diversity, the protection of cultural heritage, and the importance of respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials met with IRC leader Fetahu and MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan to discuss religious freedom issues, including perceived government favoritism toward certain religious groups.

The embassy posted 12 messages on social media regarding religious freedom, reaching more than 62,000 followers. Topics included the annual U.S. Prayer Breakfast, the President’s proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, and a message about the important roles religious communities play in helping their congregations and their most vulnerable members confront the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.


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. On May 24, the Ministry of Justice resolved the contested leadership election of the Jewish Community of Belgrade in favor of Aleksandar Jinker. The government continued to return heirless and unclaimed properties seized during the Holocaust; it also continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later. The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches remained unregistered. Leaders of the country’s two Islamic communities said the fact that, due to an internal dispute, neither had authority to deal with the government regarding the entire Muslim community created difficulty in coordinating property restitution claims and in selecting religious instructors for public school courses on religion. On February 24, parliament adopted a law establishing a Holocaust memorial site at Staro Sajmiste, a World War II-era concentration camp in Belgrade. The law also incorporated another former concentration camp in Belgrade, Topovske Supe, into the memorial. On February 26, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. On September 4, leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed a series of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

In February, unknown individuals wrote anti-Semitic messages and Nazi graffiti on multiple buildings in Novi Sad. In April, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Security, Investigation, and Defense warned citizens against Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic and characterized their proselytizing activities as sinister. Jewish leaders reported a growth in anti-Semitism online during the pandemic. Anti-Semitic literature continued to be available in some bookstores. Smaller, nontraditional groups, mainly Protestant Churches, said they encountered continued public distrust and misunderstanding and said some websites and traditional media and members of the public often branded their religious groups as “sects,” a term with a strong negative connotation in the Serbian language. According to an EU Fundamental Rights Agency report released in September, there were 30 anti-Semitic incidents in the country between 2009 and 2019, 11 of which resulted in criminal charges.

U.S. embassy officials encouraged parliament to adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Embassy officials urged the government to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property, promoted continued interfaith dialogue, and engaged with officials on the status of the government’s relationship with religious groups. 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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent data available), 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 members of the Jewish and Buddhist faiths, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, 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 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 in the north. Muslims include Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims) in the southwest Sandzak region, ethnic Albanians in the south, and some Roma located throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states 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, other freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution, 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 constitution allows any court with legal jurisdiction to prevent the dissemination of information advocating religious hatred, discrimination, hostility, or violence.

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, Jewish community, and Islamic community. The Islamic community is divided between the Islamic Community of Serbia, with its seat in Belgrade, and the Islamic Community in Serbia, with its seat in Novi Pazar. Both Islamic communities are 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, which has 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 on all purchases enumerated under law and to provide chaplain services to military personnel.

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 maintains the Register of Churches and Religious Communities and responds to registration applications. If the Ministry of Justice rejects a registration application, the religious group may appeal the decision in court.

There are 27 “nontraditional” religious groups registered with the government, compared with 25 in 2019: 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, First Roma Christian Church Leskovac, Vaishnava Religious Community-International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Protestant Reformed Church of Czechs Veliko Srediste. The latter two were newly registered during the year. 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 that 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, 2,270 clergy from 17 registered groups used these benefits. The law also exempts registered groups from property and administrative taxes and from filing annual financial reports.

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 Ministry of Justice’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 newly established Ministry for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue is tasked with combating misperceptions and hate.

The Law on Restitution of Property to Churches and Religious Communities regulates restitution claims for religious property and endowments confiscated in 1945 or later, but only for registered religious groups. The Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property Law permits individual claims for properties lost by Holocaust victims, but religious groups may not claim property confiscated prior to 1945. In accordance with the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-era assets, the Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property 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. 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 Jewish community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the community and that 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 ($1.17 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, 2019 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 other than 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. According to Ministry of Education (MOE) instructions, a minimum of 15 students is needed for a school to offer any elective course, including religion classes. In areas where individual schools do not meet the minimum number, the MOE 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 Ministry of Justice’s Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Science and Technological Development.

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 is no mandatory military service.

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

Government Practices

On May 24, the Ministry of Justice ruled in favor of an application to change the legal leadership of the Jewish Community of Belgrade in favor of Aleksandar Jinker. The ruling resolved a contested leadership election that took place in March 2019, which Jewish leaders said had contributed to tensions within their community.

In accordance with the Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property Law, the government continued to return to the Jewish community heirless and unclaimed properties seized during World War II by German occupying forces and the then quisling Serbian government in power at the time. The Restitution Agency reported 1,683 claims were filed by the February 28, 2019, deadline. The government began processing claims under the law in 2016. It reported that during the year, it returned more than 2,225 acres of agricultural land and 18,417 square feet of residential properties, such as buildings, business premises, apartments, and garages. Since implementation of the law, the government has returned 106,530 square feet of residential property, 4,646 acres of agricultural land, and 4,757 square feet of undeveloped land suitable for construction to Jewish communities in the country. By law, Jewish communities were then responsible for transferring property to individual heirs. On December 27, the Federation of Jewish Communities presented a certificate of appreciation to the Agency Director for his work on adoption and efficient implementation of the Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property Law.

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. Government officials stated that secular authorities should refrain from resolving issues among individual Orthodox Churches.

Despite some incidents involving members conducting 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. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that courts usually treated violent incidents committed against the group’s members as minor offenses instead of crimes under the law banning incitement of discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or group on religious grounds.

In July, the government granted 1.2 billion Serbian dinars ($12.53 million) from budgetary reserves to the SOC for completion of the Cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade.

The government continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later under the Law on the Restitution of Property to Churches and Religious Communities. During the year, it returned 337 hectares (832 acres) of land (compared with 773 hectares or 1,190 acres in 2019), of which 336 hectares (830 acres) was agricultural land; one acre was forests and forest land; one acre was construction land; and 330 square meters (3,552 square feet) was office space to churches and religious communities. The government returned either the properties themselves or substituted other property of equivalent value to groups that included the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Evangelical Christian Church, and Islamic Community in Serbia. The government estimated it had returned approximately 74 percent of land and 24 percent of buildings claimed by churches and religious communities. According to the Restitution Agency, no religious property was returned to the Jewish community during the year under this law. The agency, however, continued to process the Jewish community’s ongoing property restitution claims. At the end of the year, the agency had restituted 92 percent of the Jewish community’s land claims and almost 80 percent of its building claims.

According to Muslim leaders, the fact that neither the Islamic Community of Serbia nor the Islamic Community in Serbia had authority over matters regarding the entire Muslim community complicated efforts to pursue restitution claims with the government. Restitution claims by the Islamic communities continued to be processed, leading to one property being restored to the Islamic Community in Serbia during the year.

Muslim leaders said selecting religious instructors for public school courses on religion remained difficult because neither of the two Islamic groups had authority over matters regarding the entire community. Both Islamic communities had religious teachers on the MOE-approved list for the 2020-21 school year. According to the Islamic Community in Serbia, appointment of its religious teachers in schools throughout the Sandzak region continued to depend on local authorities rather than the MOE.

The director of the Ministry of Justice’s 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. The directorate also funded key construction and renovation projects for a variety of smaller religious groups. The directorate provided financial support for books and other printed materials, some reconstruction projects, and educational scholarships for clergy, 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 national television service, Radio Television of Serbia, continued to broadcast a daily, 10-minute Religious Calendar program about major holidays celebrated by monotheistic religions.

On February 24, parliament adopted a law establishing the Memorial Center Staro Sajmiste, a Holocaust memorial site at Staro Sajmiste, a World War II-era concentration camp in Belgrade. According to the law, the memorial will compile and exhibit material from archives and museums “to ensure lasting memory of the victims of the Holocaust.” The law also incorporated Topovske Supe, another former concentration camp in Belgrade, as a part of the Staro Sajmiste memorial. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for Eastern European affairs, Efrain Zuroff, the law “marked the final stage of the preparations of many years to turn the site of Staro Sajmiste into a memorial center, which will finally properly honor the memory of the numerous victims of the camp.”

The government is a member of the IHRA, and on February 26, it adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.

On September 4, Serbia and Kosovo signed a series of commitments in Washington, D.C., in which the government of Serbia pledged to protect and promote freedom of religion, including renewed interfaith communication, protection of religious sites, and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, and to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media reported two separate anti-Semitic graffiti incidents in Novi Sad in December. In the first incident, unknown individuals spray-painted a building not associated with the Jewish community with a crossed-out Star of David and the words “Back to the Furnace.” In the second incident, unidentified individuals spray-painted a billboard displaying a photo of a synagogue and the message “Visit Novi Sad” with a crossed-out Star of David and the words “Juden Frei,” a term used by the Nazis to denote areas cleansed of Jews during World War II. In February, unknown individuals wrote anti-Semitic messages and Nazi graffiti on buildings in Novi Sad. The spray-painted graffiti included a crossed-out Star of David, the words “Juden Frei,” the SS insignia, and the number 88, which neo-Nazis sometimes use instead of the words “Heil Hitler.” In February, the Novi Sad-based website also noted several instances of neo-Nazi messages written on the University of Novi Sad campus and at the Quay of the Victims of the Raid memorial that commemorates the mass killing of Serbs, Jews, and other civilians by Hungarian occupying forces in 1942.

In April, the NGO Center for Security, Investigation, and Defense warned citizens against Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic and criticized their proselytizing activities as sinister and “non-collegial” to other religious communities that did not engage in the same activities. The government reportedly took no action in response.

Jewish leaders said there had been an increase in online anti-Semitic stereotypes and statements since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jewish community leaders stated that anti-Semitic works, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, continued to be available for purchase from informal sellers or online bookshops. Self-defined “patriotic” groups continued to maintain several websites, and individuals hosted chat rooms that openly promoted anti-Semitic ideas and literature. There were no reported police prosecutions of these incidents.

Some traditional and online media, as well as other websites, continued to use the term “sect” for smaller Christian denominations and nontraditional groups, which has a strong negative connotation of “secrecy and mystifying rituals” in the Serbian language, according to anthropologist of religion Aleksandra Djuric Milovanovic, a research fellow at the Institute of Balkan Studies of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Many smaller or nontraditional religious groups reported some public bias and discrimination against their members. Several Protestant groups continued to state that they believed the general public still mistrusted and misunderstood Protestantism and that individuals sometimes referred to some Protestant denominations as “sects.” The Christian Baptist Church reported that on September 1, the show 150 Minutes on TV Prva identified Baptists as a “sect” that individuals should avoid and consider dangerous.

On September 10, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights released a report providing an overview of data on anti-Semitic incidents recorded in EU member states between 2009 and 2019. The report also provided information on North Macedonia and Serbia due to their observer status within the agency. According to the report, the Ministry of Interior and Public Prosecutor’s Office registered 30 anti-Semitic incidents in the country during the period. Of these, 11 incidents resulted in criminal charges. These included seven charges of inciting national, racial, and religious hatred and intolerance, and four charges of destruction and damage to property. The number of incidents was further divided into incidents involving anonymous threats (two), graffiti (24), and damage to Jewish community buildings (four).

Several smaller religious groups said interfaith education and dialogue were needed among the broader religious community, not only among the seven traditional groups. They also reported that formal interfaith dialogue was minimal and sporadic; however, it did occur on an informal, person-to-person basis. Members of the Roman Catholic Church, First Baptist Church, Jewish community, and Muslim community attended the first virtual Western Balkans Interreligious Dialogue interfaith event in November. All agreed that interfaith communication needed to be improved. Multiple smaller groups, including the Christ Evangelical Church, the Anglican Church, and the Theravada Buddhist Community, reported good cooperation with local SOC officials.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to engage regularly with government officials to promote religious freedom. They highlighted the importance of increased interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and protection of religious sites and engaged the government on the status of its relations with traditional and nontraditional religious communities. Embassy officials encouraged parliament to adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. The embassy continued to urge the Agency for Restitution and other members of government to continue implementing the Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property Law. Embassy officials continued to encourage sustained efforts regarding the construction of the Holocaust memorial site at the World War II-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp and offered assistance, including connecting Serbian officials with experienced U.S. institutions.

On November 23, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom hosted the first virtual Western Balkans Interreligious Dialogue, which gathered leaders from multiple Western Balkan religious communities to facilitate constructive discussion in a moderated dialogue aimed at developing local reconciliation initiatives.

Embassy officials continued to engage local religious leaders to promote religious freedom and continue interfaith dialogue. 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, Lighthouse Evangelical Church, Christ Evangelical Church, the Ministry of Justice’s Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, and the NGO Center 9. In September, the Ambassador traveled to the southwestern part of the country to meet with representatives from the SOC and Islamic communities to discuss local conditions and challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the socioeconomic status of community members, and joint engagement of religious communities on issues of common interest.

Embassy officials continued to use social media and other public outreach tools to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance as well for the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. In May, the embassy posted a video to its Twitter account of the Ambassador’s visit to the Bajrakli Mosque in Belgrade to mark Eid al-Fitr. In July, the embassy website highlighted the leadership demonstrated by the country in resolving Holocaust restitution issues.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future