Bosnia and Herzegovina
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 of two houses of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – predominantly SOC-member Serbs, predominantly Roman Catholic Croats, and predominantly Muslim Bosniaks. The human rights ministry issued new regulations allowing reporting of religious freedom abuses directly to the ministry, which is then charged with working with relevant authorities to correct the abuses. Religious groups in areas where they were a local minority reported continued government discrimination regarding denial of permits for construction or repair of religious properties, and in education, employment, and provision of social services. The Presidency again failed to approve an agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. In a report covering 2018, the Islamic Community (IC) said a school threatened to punish Muslim students if they did not make up classes missed during a religious holiday. The same report said the military served Muslim soldiers pork over a two-month period. The Interreligious Council (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported authorities moved unacceptably slowly to investigate and prosecute religiously motivated crimes. In September Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly Dino Konakovic said in an interview he did not mind that a local elementary school continued to be named for a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler.
The IRC registered 10 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites and one case of verbal abuse against an Orthodox priest during the year and said the actual number of incidents was likely much higher. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 incidents of bias against Muslims, 10 against Christians, and two against Jews. The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing. The IRC continued to promote interfaith dialogue through conferences and projects with local governments.
U.S. embassy representatives emphasized to government officials the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these 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 activities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2019 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
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 guarantees 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.
A national law on religion guarantees freedom of conscience and grants legal status to churches and religious communities. To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. 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 grants numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those who do not register, including the rights 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 state 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. Other requirements for registration include the development of a statute defining 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, and a group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. There are no reports the ministry had denied any registration applications by religious communities. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction. The law also 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.”
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.
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, carry out religious education in public or private schools, and officially recognize Catholic holidays. The commission for implementation of the concordat comprises five members from the government and five from the Holy See. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, but the parties have not established a commission for implementation of the concordat.
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.
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. 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. These individuals are employees of the schools where they teach, but 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. In September the RS Ministry of Education introduced 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 is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In April the MHRR issued new instructions on the implementation of the law on religious freedom and position of churches and religious communities. In addition to provisions dealing with cooperation with churches and religious communities and autonomy for churches and religious communities, the instructions contain a measure that allows churches, religious communities, and groups or individuals the right to report abuses of their right to religious freedom directly to the MHRR. The MHRR is then charged with requesting respective state, entity, cantonal, or municipal authorities to undertake legally prescribed measures to prevent such violations of the law.
Officials publicly acknowledged the need to address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house but took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups.
According to IC officials, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency again blocked from its agenda for approval an agreement, reached in 2015, 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 IC officials stated the agreement remained blocked because the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency believed it would grant Muslims more rights than those granted to the Catholic and SOC communities.
In March the Commission for Freedom of Religion of the Riyasat – the highest religious and administrative body of the IC – issued its 2018 Reported Cases of Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion of Muslims in the country. The commission said it received six complaints, involving government and nongovernment entities. One was from the IC in Janja in the RS, saying Mesa Selimovic School officials violated the rights of approximately 500 Bosniak school children by threatening to sanction the students unless they made up school days they missed during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. In another case, the IC complained that schools in the country did not have prayer rooms.
Local NGOs continued to state that government authorities have not annulled the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. However, there were no instances of the HJPC applying these instructions during the year.
According to officials of religious groups in 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. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse to allocate land for the construction of a new Catholic church, saying the construction was not foreseen by urban plans drawn up in 1980. In June 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 a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. This overturned Drvar Municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request. At year’s end, however, Drvar Municipality had declined to implement this decision, even though the deadline for implementation was June 5, 2019.
On October 1, the ECHR ruled that the government of BiH must remove a Serbian Orthodox church illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The court ruled the church construction in 1998 was illegal and ordered authorities to ensure its removal within three months, return the land to Orlovic, and pay 5,000 euros ($5,600) to Orlovic and 2,000 euros ($2,200) to her relatives in damages. The SOC constructed the church after Orlovic and her family were expelled from their home during the 1992-95 conflict. The ECHR ruled that authorities had failed to comply with previous decisions by the Commission for Real Property Claims of Displaced Persons and Refugees in 1999 and the Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons of the RS in 2001 ordering that Orlovic be granted full restitution of her land, the seizure of which resulted in a violation of the right to property.
Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s ongoing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. In November Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, 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 local NGOs such as Vasa Prava, the government again failed to implement legal provisions regarding the religious education of returnee children, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government officials seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a seventh year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.
Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions. A mother in Banja Luka told media that her daughter did not want to stop attending religious education classes because she did not want to feel excluded or different from the other students.
According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees 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.
Leaders of religious minority communities and local NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, continued to say authorities again failed to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. Local NGOs reported government authorities discriminated against minority Serb Orthodox communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc, particularly by denying children access to education in their mother tongue (including using the Cyrillic alphabet) or to classes covering the history and literature of their national group and employment in public companies.
Religious leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. For example, following an incident on July 24 when a group of five persons threw stones at the Rijecanska Mosque in Zvornik, the IRC said the police report stated the material damage to the mosque was negligible and did not treat the case as a hate crime.
According to the IRC’s 2018 annual report published in May, police identified only 34 percent of perpetrators of religiously motivated crimes in 2018, compared with 45 percent in 2017. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.
In the report, the IRC said authorities moved unacceptably slowly in investigating and prosecuting crimes, taking an average of five to seven years to conclude cases reported as crimes. According to the IRC, of 219 incidents against religious sites or personnel it registered since 2010, police had identified suspects in 75 cases and prosecuted only 23. During the year, the IRC said authorities had identified only two suspects in the extant cases and initiated no new prosecutions. In addition, the IRC stated authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes. The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance.
The IC’s commission also said the armed forces failed to provide Muslim members with halal food and served them dried processed meals containing pork during a two-month period in 2018. The commission’s report said the Sarajevo Veterinary Institute confirmed the failure to provide halal food.
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 school and street retained the Busuladzic name. On September 16, Dino Konakovic, Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, said in an interview that he did not mind that the Dobrosevici School continued to be named for Busuladzic.
According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See did not meet during the year and had not met since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest and also because the government had still not formed a new Council of Ministers after the October 2018 general elections. According to the Catholic Church, the government had not implemented earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays.
The agreement between the government and the SOC also remained unimplemented; neither the SOC nor the government had nominated members to the implementing commission by year’s end.
International and local NGOs, 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
In the case of verbal abuse against a religious official recorded by the IRC, an Orthodox priest from the Church of Saint Basil of Ostrog in Blagaj, near Mostar, said in August a Muslim man threatened him via social media. According to the Srpska Times, the man also posted on social media that Orthodox Serbs could worship at the church “unless Muslims get harassed; after that, they may wonder whether to come there again. Muslims get harassed in Gacko [in the RS], and you want to come here without problems? It will not do.”
The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 cases of bias against Muslims (two involving threats, the rest incidents against property), 10 against Christians (one involving violence, the rest incidents against property), and two against Jews (both involving incidents against property). The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. The man sustained injuries. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing.
In early April after several attacks were reported to the IRC in a relatively short period of time, it issued a public statement strongly condemning the incidents and expressing particular concern over the misuse of religious symbols. The IRC reported that it had raised awareness among local religious communities and IRC chapters on the importance of condemning religiously motivated attacks, and as a result, the local religious communities proactively took it upon themselves to condemn these types of attacks when they occurred.
In December 2018 unknown persons broke into the Catholic Church of Saint Mother Teresa in Vogosca near Sarajevo and damaged furniture. The local chapter of the IRC condemned the incident. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects.
In one of the three cases against SOC sites reported to the IRC, in July individuals broke into an Orthodox church in the village of Donje Vukovsko in the Kupres Municipality, broke the windows, and destroyed furniture.
In June a man destroyed four tombstones at an Islamic cemetery in Kazanbasca in Zvornik. Two weeks later, Zvornik police identified a suspect and submitted a criminal report to the district prosecutor’s office in Bijeljina, with charges of desecration of graves or a criminal act against a deceased person; the investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
The Council of Muftis of the IC continued 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 21 active para-jamaats during the year, the same number as in 2018 and down from 64 in 2016.
The IRC continued to sponsor projects aimed at increasing interfaith dialogue involving women and youth. In February the IRC organized a two-day conference in Sarajevo on strengthening interreligious dialogue at the local level in the country. During the conference, members and activists from the IRC’s 15 local chapters, among whom were religious officials from various cities, presented their activities and projects. Eight local chapters signed memoranda of cooperation with their respective municipalities, and some municipalities began providing financial support to local chapters for their activities, including some interfaith events designed to increase youth participation. One such activity involved organizing joint visits to Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox places of worship by mixed groups of youth from all four religions.
In November, according to a report in Reuters, Sarajevo’s Islamic and Jewish communities celebrated the bicentennial of an uprising by Sarajevo Muslims to rescue a dozen Jews from an Ottoman governor’s jail and impending execution. The event was marked by an exhibition and conference describing the episode and marking 500 years of what it described as peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the city, as well as among Jews, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. BiH’s Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic said, “Bosnian Muslims and Jews are one body,” adding, “…We are renewing our pledge that we will remain good neighbors who will watch over each other as we did in the past.” As part of the commemoration, the tombstone of a Jewish historian who recorded the uprising, Mose Rafael Attias, was renovated in the city’s Jewish cemetery.
Media reported that on May 4, the Aladza Mosque reopened as a working mosque in Foca in the eastern part of the country, following a five-year reconstruction effort led by international and local donors. Several thousand persons from throughout the country attended the event, which the IC described as its biggest event of the year. In 1992, Serb forces destroyed the mosque, originally built in 1549 and on the country’s cultural heritage list and the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, the Ministry of Security, and other ministries 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 with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. At these events, which included events hosted by the religious communities as well as meetings hosted by the embassy, 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 these events and meetings on its various social media platforms; these postings on Twitter and Facebook included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue in BiH.
The embassy helped to create and has continued supporting the first-ever joint master’s degree program among the three theological faculties and between two entities of BiH. The Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding Master’s program is implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo) and is administered by a joint council. It was created in collaboration with the embassy and a visiting Fulbright specialist in 2018. Two cohorts of approximately 25 students had entered the course as of year’s end.
The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. Cooperation included the IRC’s participation in activities such as visits to the locations of atrocities, round tables on reconciliation, IRC involvement in Open Doors events, where youth visit houses of worship other than their own, and participation in the PRO Future program, which is designed to promote interreligious dialogue in BIH.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with IRC leadership in November to discuss ways in which the embassy and government could help the IRC and individual religious communities resolve their differences. The IRC continued to participate in U.S. government-funded programs designed to help overcome ethnic and religious divisions through dialogue among the country’s religious groups. In February, under the auspices of a U.S. government-funded program, the IRC organized a roundtable in Bugojno that served as the initial meeting to form a network of women believers from Bugojno Municipality as part of the larger Network of Women Believers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an interfaith network of women that meets to discuss various issues. By having women of all religious backgrounds come together, the network is able to highlight similarities that the women share rather than differences.
The Ambassador spoke at the reopening ceremony of the historic Aladza Mosque in Foca on May 4. In his remarks, he noted that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina must work together to ensure that all peoples and all faiths have a rightful place not only in Foca but throughout the country. The embassy contributed approximately $128,000 to finance several phases of reconstruction and restoration of the mosque as a cultural landmark.
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. The Kosovo Assembly (parliament) did not consider draft legislation that would have allowed religious groups to acquire legal status and conduct business in their name. While religious groups stated they generally had collaborative relationships with local governments, the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said municipal governments did not treat religious organizations equally on property issues, including in the granting of building permits and allocation of burial space in public cemeteries. KPEC and others also stated the Kosovo Islamic Community (BIK) held contracts to run many municipal cemeteries and discriminated against minority religious groups in the allocation of burial plots and provision of services. Representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) said the government violated some of the Church’s property rights stipulated by the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZ), such as refusal to implement a three-year-old court decision to recognize SOC ownership of certain parcels of land around Visoki Decani Monastery and continuing road construction that threatened to extend into the SPZ. According to the SOC, no municipal officials were held accountable for this refusal. BIK reported two instances of employment related discrimination against practicing Muslims. Some BIK officials stated the level of anti-Muslim sentiment in media increased and said it could harm employment opportunities for devout Muslims.
National police reported 61 religiously motivated incidents, most targeting religious sites, including cemeteries, in the first nine months of the year. Many incidents were linked to ethnicity as well as religion. On January 6, Kosovo-Albanians threatened an SOC priest in front of his church in Novo Brdo/Novoberde. On July 13 and December 16, unknown persons vandalized the Orthodox cemetery in Lipjan/Lipljan. The national and municipal governments condemned the incidents immediately and called for law enforcement action to apprehend the perpetrators. In Gjakova/Djakovica, on January 6, Kosovo-Albanians protested in front of the local Serbian Orthodox church against what they called the visit of “criminals disguised as pilgrims,” forcing displaced Serbs to cancel their Orthodox Christmas annual pilgrimage to the church for security reasons.
U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage government enforcement of mechanisms to protect religious sites and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, as well as resolution of SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met with religious leaders to discuss their concerns and encouraged them to foster religious tolerance and improve interfaith dialogue. In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with representatives of all major faith communities and, in a gathering with youth from religious and secularist groups, called for greater religious freedom and pluralism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent official census in 2011, 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, a boycott of the 2011 census by ethnic Serbs and general population registration irregularities resulted in a significant undercounting of SOC members. 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 community members.
According to BIK, most Muslims belong to the Hanafi Sunni school, although some are part of the Sufi Tarikat community. There is also a small Sufi Bektashi religious community; no official estimate exists for the number of its adherents. Kosovo-Albanians, whose language is Albanian, represent the majority in 28 of the country’s 38 municipalities, and Kosovo-Serbs, whose language is Serbian, 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.
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, and nearly all ethnic Croats are Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 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 does not require registration of religious groups, but 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 groups may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, access the courts as an entity, although individual churches or individual members may, or 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. SOC property is an exception: the SPZ Law acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas.
The law stipulates there is no official religion, but it lists the five “traditional” religious communities that receive extra protections and benefits, including reduced taxes. The law stipulates freedom of religious or nonreligious practices, the right to establish humanitarian/charity organizations, acceptance of voluntary financial contributions from individuals and institutions, and upholding 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 Implementation and Monitoring Council (IMC) arbitrates 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. The IMC members included the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning as co-chair (now consolidated under the Infrastructure Ministry’s purview); the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport (MCYS); the SOC; the Special Representative of the European Union (as co-chair); and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Municipalities are legally responsible for 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 government has no control.
A Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MOE) administrative circular with the force of law on the code of conduct and disciplinary measures for students of secondary high schools bans 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.
During the year, the parliament did not consider amendments to the Law on Religious Freedom permitting 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. The amendments would also clarify the identity and status of some religious groups, such as the Bektashi community, which requested recognition as a distinct Islamic community. The amendments passed a first reading at the assembly in 2017, and the assembly reviewed them in 2018 but never voted on them. To restart consideration of the legislation, the government would need to restart the process by resubmitting it to the assembly. 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 KPEC said they continued to be taxed as for-profit businesses.
According to BIK, there were no cases of Muslim students or teachers being denied access to schools as a result of the government decree prohibiting religious attire on school property. While the MOE’s administrative circular refers only to secondary school attendees, Muslim community leaders reported discrimination in hiring of Muslim applicants to the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF), including one against a Muslim woman, and discrimination against teachers/lecturers and school management applicants for those wearing religious attire.
MOE officials met with a BIK representative to discuss the prohibition of religious attire in July, but the ban remained in place at year’s end. Candidates from multiple parties running for office in the October parliamentary elections also criticized the ban. BIK provided an example of KSF denying a female applicant permission to wear the hijab in uniform.
Most municipalities had annual agreements with BIK to arrange burial ceremonies of citizens. Some religious or ethnic communities, including the Protestant community and Muslims from the Roma community, said this arrangement sometimes violated their religious rights, as they faced intimidation or were prevented from conducting burial ceremonies according to their own customs. Some municipalities, such as Gjilan/Gnjilane, attempted to divide municipal cemeteries into sections and allocate each section to a different religious community. In these cases, some non-BIK-affiliated religious groups, such as Protestants and Roma Muslims, said BIK discriminated against them, conditioning burial of their community members on payment of annual membership fees, as well as fees for participation of an imam and performance of Islamic religious rites. Pristina’s Catholic and Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities continued to use separate public cemeteries.
The SOC stated that although the law requires consultation on activities occurring within SPZs, the government did not observe or enforce this requirement in Novoberde/Novo Brdo; the SOC said it was not notified of government-led restoration works, a government-sponsored celebration of the “Artana (Novo Brdo) days” festival in SPZ Novo Brdo/Novoberde fortress, or a Catholic Mass held at a religious site claimed by the SOC.
With the government’s assent, the OSCE supervised the implementation of legislation on protection of SPZs around Serbian Orthodox religious and heritage sites.
BIK leadership reported a group of Mitrovica citizens lobbied for reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovica /Mitrovice North that Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999, but opposition from local Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.
Plans for a Grand Mosque in Pristina remain stalled because the 2018 building permit expired and developers waited for permit renewal. Some local imams reported there was no demand for such a large mosque in the downtown area, while government officials raised concerns about disruption to buildings, traffic, and parking.
At year’s end, Pristina Municipality and the Jewish community continued to disagree on a suitable location for a synagogue, for which the municipality issued a construction permit in 2016. The Jewish community refused the plot of land on the outskirts of the city that the municipal government offered, while the government rejected the community’s request for a location near downtown Pristina.
MCYS earmarked 50,000 euros ($56,200) toward reconstruction of the Jewish Community center in Prizren; however, the project was on hold until the Jewish community raised the remainder of the needed funds.
Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision upholding the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling recognizing the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land. Mayor of Decan/Decani Bashkim Ramosaj and the local assembly continued during the year to state the court’s ruling was “unacceptable.” Central government officials took no action to enforce the court decision. NATO Kosovo Force troops continued to provide security at the Decani monastery.
The Decan/Decani municipal government, with support from central authorities, continued its effort to construct a major transit road near Visoki Decani Monastery. After previously abandoning work on the road within the SPZ, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the municipality continued building it from both sides adjacent to the SPZ; the monastery said it interpreted this as a move to force SOC acceptance of road construction through the SPZ, despite both a legislative ban on such activities and an IMC opinion that the road would violate the law.
On February 26, an appellate court ruled in favor of Catholic Church ownership of more than 7,500 square meters (80,000 square feet) of land adjacent to Mother Theresa Cathedral, overturning the Pristina Municipality’s land claim.
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. KPEC and public university officials said they believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.
The Water Regulatory Agency continued to waive water utility fees for religious buildings belonging to the five “traditional” religious communities. Other religious groups paid the water fees.
According to KPEC, customs officials rescinded a fine it levied on KPEC in 2017 for misuse of duty-free imports for religious organizations, on the grounds that the legal status of that inquiry was not fully resolved. A 2017 OSCE legal opinion cited contradictions in the law surrounding the sale of goods for charitable purposes.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
National police reported 61 religiously motivated incidents in the first nine months of the year, most of which targeted Orthodox and Muslim religious sites and involved theft or property damage, such as cemetery desecration, compared with 86 cases of a similar nature in 2018. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On January 6, according to the SOC, a group of Kosovo-Albanians verbally abused SOC priest Bojan Jevtic, by calling him a “Chetnik” and threatened to slaughter him in front of his church in Novoberde/Novo Brdo Municipality. According to Jevtic, after he filed a complaint, the police did not follow-up.
On January 6, a group of Kosovo-Albanians, including families of missing persons, protested against the announced annual Orthodox Christmas visit of Serb Orthodox pilgrims to the local SOC church in Gjakove/Djakovica. The pilgrims were informed about the announced protests and canceled their visit due to security concerns. The protest ended after protesters placed a list of alleged Serb war criminals at the church’s door, stating they were against “criminals disguised as pilgrims.”
The SOC said media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year. The SOC also complained about the public statements of NGO “Decan/Decani Historians” against Hieromonk of Decani Monastery Father Sava Janjic and Bishop of Raska-Prizren Teodosije Sibalic.
BIK said the frequency of anti-Muslim media reports and statements on social networks increased, and secularists used media and social networks to portray practicing Muslims negatively. One newspaper columnist referred to pro-Erdogan Muslims as “troglodytes,” “trash,” and “the Taliban.”
BIK reported one case of a woman denied an employment contract in the private sector. BIK said “devoted” Muslim women rarely reported cases of religious-based discrimination.
In July vandals destroyed 20 tombstones at an SOC cemetery in Lipjan/Lipljan Municipality, and several tombstones were demolished at an SOC cemetery in Ferizaj/Urosevac Municipality in September. SOC representatives again said they believed incidents targeting SOC sites were driven more by ethnicity than religion.
In September unknown vandals broke a plaque in the cemetery section designated by Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality for the evangelical Protestant community; the SOC claimed ownership of the assigned parcel and rejected the municipality’s designation.
In March ethnic Croats reported the destruction of religious symbols in the Catholic church in Janjevo Village. A police investigation of the incident was ongoing at year’s end.
Religious group leaders continued to meet occasionally for 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 permits to construct religious buildings. The OSCE also included representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which met to discuss security issues.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials urged central and local government officials, including the prime minister, to respect the law and SPZs, particularly in the case of the planned road near Visoki Decani Monastery. Embassy officials advocated with all levels of government for implementation of the 2016 Constitutional Court decision ordering the return of land to Visoki Decani Monastery, urging the government and the judiciary to hold local officials accountable. The Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed property issues of other religious groups with government officials and urged them to respect religious freedom and pluralism and increase their communication with religious groups. Embassy officials urged the customs office on multiple occasions to delay issuing citations to KPEC on charges of misusing duty-free imports, pending clarification of the Customs Code and the law covering customs exemptions for religious organizations.
Embassy officials met frequently with religious leaders to promote religious freedom and tolerance and improve interfaith communication. They met with BIK imams and members of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Pristina to discuss efforts to promote tolerance and discussed proposed amendments to the Law on Religious Freedom. They also spoke in mosques as invited speakers before Friday prayers about the importance of religious pluralism. Embassy personnel often posted messages on social media in support of religious freedom, such as marking the International Day of Religious Freedom in October and promoting the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.
In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with representatives of all major faith communities, urging them toward mutual respect and support for religious pluralism, as well as advocating creation of an interfaith council. In conjunction with the visit, embassy officials organized a youth event with emerging leaders nominated by different religious communities and secularist organizations.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It specifies there is no state religion and stipulates equality and freedom for all religious communities. The law prohibits religious discrimination and hate speech. Religious groups, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), continued to state the laws governing their legal status were inadequate. On December 27, parliament passed the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities. President Milo Djukanovic signed the law on December 28. The SOC strongly criticized the law, which stipulates religious property lacking clear ownership and that falls under the pre-1918 “cultural heritage” of the state may become state property. Although the government repeatedly stated it had no intention of confiscating SOC property but rather intends to resolve century-old questions regarding the country’s religious and state identity before its 1918 loss of independence to Serbia, hundreds of thousands of SOC believers throughout the country protested, largely peacefully, the law almost daily since its passing. There were isolated incidents of violence against the police in some of the demonstrations, accompanied by online incitements to violence. Police sometimes prevented Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and SOC members from simultaneously engaging in religious activities at Orthodox sites, citing concerns over potential clashes. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic commented on a long-lasting controversy surrounding an SOC church on Mt. Rumija, saying to SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, “Do you really think that the state does not have the power to stop and knock down your illegal interventions? We can, and we can do it in one day, in one night. The baptistery and the church on Mt. Rumija, and all other churches which you build without the agreement of the state.” Markovic added the government did not wish to do this, wanting to instead to come to an agreement via dialogue. The SOC said the Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued to deny visas to its clergy. The government maintained its policy of not restituting religious properties confiscated by the Yugoslav communist government.
The SOC stated the predominantly Muslim residents of Gusinje municipality blocked it from holding religious ceremonies on the foundations of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog in Martinici and vandals destroyed and threw into the river a cross the SOC had left at the ruins of the church. The SOC and the MOC continued to dispute ownership of Orthodox sites in the country, most of which are held by the SOC, for which the MOC said ownership rights were wrongfully transferred.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials met with government and religious representatives to discuss relations between the government and religious groups, particularly with regard to the new religion law. In May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with representatives of different religious communities to discuss interfaith tolerance and moderation. During a visit in November, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with religious leaders from the Orthodox, Catholic, Islamic, and Jewish communities. The Ambassador hosted a discussion for the Ambassador at Large on the new religion law with participants from a wide diversity of religious communities and the government, the first such discussion of its kind. Embassy representatives discussed issues of religious freedom and tolerance with the principal faith groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 612,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 72 percent of the population is Orthodox, generally belonging to either the SOC or MOC, though the census does not differentiate between Orthodox groups. Local media estimate the SOC accounts for 70 percent of the Orthodox population, while the MOC makes up the remaining 30 percent. The census reports 19.1 percent of the population is Muslim, 3.4 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.2 percent atheist. Additionally, 2.6 percent of respondents did not indicate a religion, and several other groups, including Seventh-day Adventists (registered locally as the Christian Adventist Church), Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other Christians, and agnostics, together account for less than 1 percent of the population. According to press estimates, the Jewish community numbers approximately 400.
There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: ethnic Montenegrins and ethnic Serbs are predominantly associated with Orthodoxy, ethnic Albanians with Islam or Catholicism, and ethnic Croats with the Catholic Church. Many Bosniaks (ethnic Bosnians who are Muslim) and other Muslims live along the eastern and northern borders with Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as well as the right to change religion. It guarantees the freedom of all individuals to express their religion in public and private, alone or collectively, through prayer, preaching, custom, or rites, and states individuals shall not be obliged to declare their religious beliefs. The constitution states the freedom to express religious beliefs may be restricted only if required to protect the life and health of the public, peace and order, or other rights guaranteed by the constitution. It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities in religious activities and affairs. The constitution permits courts to prevent propagation of religious hatred or discrimination and prohibits political and other organizations from instigating religious hatred and intolerance.
By law, it is a crime to cause and spread religious hatred, which includes publication of information inciting hatred or violence against persons based on religion, the mockery of religious symbols, or the desecration of monuments, memorial tablets, or tombs. Violators may receive prison sentences ranging from six months to 10 years. If the violation is committed through the misuse of an official position or authority or leads to violence, or if the courts determine the consequences are detrimental to the coexistence of peoples, national minorities, or ethnic groups, the prison sentence ranges from two to 10 years.
The criminal code prescribes a fine of between 200 and 16,000 euros ($220-$18,000) or up to two years’ imprisonment for restricting an individual’s freedom to exercise a religious belief or membership in a religious group or for preventing or obstructing the performance of religious rites. The code also provides for a fine from 600 euros to 8,000 euros ($670-$9,000) or a maximum of one year in prison for coercing another person to declare his or her religious beliefs. Any government official found guilty of these crimes may receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.
The law provides for the recognition of religious groups and registration with local and federal authorities; based on the now former law in force through the end of the year, religious groups that existed before 1977 were not obligated to register in order to obtain recognition. New religious groups had to register with local police within 15 days of their establishment to receive the status of a legal entity, although there was no penalty specified for failing to do so. The police then had to file this registration with the MOI, which maintains a list of all religious organizations in the country. According to the new law, signed on December 28 but not in effect at the end of the year, religious groups are no longer obliged to register. Only registered groups, however, obtain the right to legal personhood with the rights afforded to such. To register, a religious group must have three adult believers of Montenegrin citizenship, or with legal status in the country, provide its name and organizing documents, the names of its officials, the address of the group’s headquarters, and the location(s) where religious services will be performed. The group must have a headquarters in the country and a name that differs from groups already registered. Registration entitles groups to own property, hold bank accounts in their own name, and receive a tax exemption for donations and sales of goods or services directly related to their religious activities. Lack of registration or recognition did not affect a group’s ability to conduct religious activities for the year, but it was unclear how it will affect groups under the new law. Unregistered religious communities could register as another type of organization in order to open a bank account but could not receive the tax exemptions granted to registered religious groups. Many smaller religious communities registered as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the year.
There are 21 recognized religious groups in the country: the SOC, MOC, Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM), Roman Catholic Church, Church of Christ’s Gospel, Catholic Mission Tuzi, Christian Adventist Church, Evangelistic Church, Army Order of Hospitable Believers of Saint Lazar of Jerusalem for Montenegro, Franciscan Mission for Malesija, Biblical Christian Community, Baha’i Faith, Montenegrin Community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Montenegrin Catholic Church, Montenegrin Protestant Church, Montenegrin Demochristian Church, and Montenegrin Adventist Church, as well as the Buddhist and Jewish communities. All these groups are registered except for the SOC, which has not applied to register, since it existed before 1977 and is not obligated to under law. Other groups that existed before 1977 chose to register.
The government has agreements with the ICM, Jewish Community, and Holy See further defining the legal status of these respective groups and regulating their relationship with the state. The agreement with the Holy See recognizes Catholic canon law as the Church’s legal framework and outlines the Church’s property rights. The agreements with the ICM and Jewish communities have similar provisions. The agreements establish commissions between each of the three religious communities and the government. The government has no such agreements with the SOC, MOC, or the other recognized religious groups.
The Directorate for Relations with Religious Communities within the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights (MHMR) regulates relations between state agencies and religious groups and is charged with protecting the free exercise of religion and advancing interfaith cooperation and understanding. The MHMR provides some funds to religious communities and is in charge of communication between the government and religious communities. The ministry is also in charge of drafting new legislation defining the status and rights of religious organizations.
The law allows all religious groups, including unrecognized ones, to conduct religious services and rites in churches, shrines, and other premises designated by local governments, but it requires approval from municipal police for such activities at any other public locations.
The law forbids “the abuse of religious communities or their religious sites for political purposes.”
The law provides prisoners the right to engage in religious practice and have contact with clergy. Prisoners may request a diet conforming to their religious customs.
The constitution recognizes the right of members of minority national communities, individually or collectively, to exercise, protect, develop, and express “religious particularities” (i.e., religious customs unique to their minority community); to establish religious associations with the support of the state; and to establish and maintain contacts with persons and organizations outside the country who share the same religious beliefs.
By law, religion may not be taught in public primary or secondary schools. The Islamic Community operates one private madrassah at the secondary school level, and the SOC operates one secondary school, both of which offer religious instruction and follow the state curriculum in nonreligious matters.
The law prohibits discrimination, including on religious grounds. Offenses are punishable by a prison term of six months to five years. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights (ombudsman) is responsible for combating discrimination and human rights violations, including those against religious freedom, by government agencies. It may investigate complaints of religious discrimination and, if it finds a violation, may request remedial measures. Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($560-$2,800). Generally, government agencies implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. If necessary, the courts may enforce the recommendations.
The constitution exempts conscientious objectors, including those objecting for religious reasons, from military service. Alternative service is not required.
The constitution states foreign nationals fearing persecution in their home countries on the grounds of religion have the right to request asylum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In December parliament passed the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities, which replaced the 1977 religion law, drafted during the Yugoslav period, which religious groups and government officials agreed was outdated and inadequate. The SOC said the new legislation was discriminatory, stating it would unfairly allow the state to assert ownership of religious buildings or land built or obtained with public revenues or “the joint investment of citizens,” or owned by the state until December 1, 1918, and “for which there was no evidence of ownership by the religious communities.” The SOC further said the law was vague because it did not specify what “evidence of ownership” would entail. The (SOC) Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral and the Diocese of Budimlje and Niksic stated the measure would mean “confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities,” and worried that that although the SOC had ownership documentation for each of its properties, these documents would not be sufficient. The government responded the new law provides ownership issues shall be determined in accordance with existing administrative and civil laws, and it stated there would be no ad hoc decisions outside of proscribed legal processes, nor was there an intention to turn away any worshippers from religious facilities. The government and religious groups confirmed the individual agreements with the ICM, Jewish Community, and Holy See would remain in place regardless of the newly adopted religious law.
Widespread demonstrations marked the law’s debate, eventual passage, and aftermath. Prior to the final vote, Speaker of Parliament Ivan Brajovic rejected discussion of the more than 100 amendments the Democratic Front (DF) had just introduced on behalf of the SOC. DF members of parliament (MPs), whom observers said were trying to prevent the final vote, threw a firecracker on the middle of the debate floor and charged the dais, grabbing and throwing microphones, papers, and electronic devices. Plainclothes police detained all 17 DF MPs, later releasing all but three: Milan Knezevic, Andrija Mandic, and Milun Zogovic. During debate on December 26, police cordoned off traffic in downtown Podgorica around parliament, keeping away hundreds of SOC and opposition supporters, while some DF members of parliament advocated for self-immolation in parliament to prevent the passing of the law. Street protests also took place in several other cities across the country, with reports that protests were generally peaceful except for isolated incidents of rock throwing and shooting of fireworks against the police. There were also reports of online incitements to violence. The SOC accused the government and President Djukanovic of inciting ethnic divisions. Prime Minister Markovic said there was “no hidden agenda” to take possession of SOC property and warned authorities would prevent any violation of peace and order. After the passing of the religion law on December 27, the SOC organized regular peaceful protests in which thousands turned out. Some marches in Niksic and Podgorica registered more than 50,000 participants. Citizens blocked roads in Podgorica, Niksic, Pljevlja, Berane, Herceg Novi, Tivat, Bar, and Andrijevica, while others participated in marches from their towns to the convocations. The SOC announced it would call biweekly protests on Thursdays and Sundays every week until parliament repealed the law. They also announced they would challenge the law in the constitutional court. The government and analysts said there was an apparently coordinated campaign of disinformation, propaganda, and provocation, some of which coming from third countries, seeking to fan ethnonationalistic divisions and provoke conflict through the protests.
Other religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Islamic Community, also stated the issue of religious properties should be regulated by other laws and not be included in the draft law. They added they were either told by the government or were simply aware that the ownership question was not an issue that concerned them, but rather an issue between the government and the SOC, although they raised concerns that the law could easily affect them once in place, as it would apply to all. Some religious groups raised concerns that the law would represent a step towards creating a de facto state religion, stating the government heavily favored the MOC. The MOC was the only religious group to welcome the property provisions of the law, stating the law would “return their rightful property to them.”
Government officials, including Zana Filipovic, general director of the MHMR’s Directorate of Relations with Religious Communities, described the law as positive, stating it was intended to modernize the existing law and there would be no mass reregistration of religious property to the government. They did not specify which properties could be considered “cultural heritage,” the specific process through which this would happen, or the body that would be responsible for implementing the property provisions of the law. Government officials indicated specific mechanisms would be developed in the next year. Government officials also said the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, supported the law and all changes to the draft were in line with the commission’s recommendations.
On August 26, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers published a written statement the SOC made at the UN Human Rights Council in which it cited its objections to the draft law, and particularly its property provisions. The SOC said the government had not responded to an SOC report citing its concerns over the law and said its principal objections were what it described as confiscation of religious property; loss of the previous legal status of religious communities; discrimination among religious communities; narrowing of the scope of freedom of religious groups; and a unilateral drafting procedure without dialogue. The statement also said the Church was the subject of discrimination, hate speech, and individual attacks and the government failed to protect priests or punish perpetrators, and it characterized SOC clergy as enemies of the state.
In June the Venice Commission issued an opinion on the draft legislation, stating registration as the owner might be insufficient for a religious group to establish ownership and the state might be able to assert ownership over a significant number of properties, particularly Orthodox. It praised the government for drafting a law that allowed freedom of belief and nonbelief, among other issues, but stated it was “evidently not the task of the Venice Commission to assess the historical facts and background, nor to determine whether and which of the disputed immovable properties were erroneously/abusively registered.”
The SOC convoked a church council on the June 15 Trojicindan holiday (Feast of the Holy Trinity) in Podgorica, protesting the then-draft law on religion and its potential property rights ramifications. SOC Bishop Joanikije Micovic of Budimlje and Niksic read a statement at the event, calling the draft law “antireligious” and “preparation for the looting of Church property.” Approximately 8,000 SOC followers attended what up until that point was one of the largest protests of the year. A few days before the protest, according to press reports, Joanikije said, “We will defend our property with our very lives. When it comes to that, there are no rules.”
According to a June 14 report in Balkan Insight, a website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Zana Filipovic, general director of the MHMHR’s Directorate of Relations with Religious Communities, said regarding the draft law, “We absolutely disagree that this is a form of confiscation and nationalization of religious objects.” She said the law would simply introduce “legal order into the property data of religious groups” and identify what constituted state property. The same report said President Djukanovic accused the SOC of waging a campaign for a Greater Serbia and promised to seek independence for the MOC. The article quoted Djukanovic as telling a convention of his Democratic Party of Socialists, “We will not allow contemporary Montenegro to live under the dictatorship of a religious organization that represents a relic of the past.”
On August 19, for the 10th year in a row, police banned members of both the MOC and SOC from celebrating the Transfiguration of Christ holiday at the Church of Christ’s Transfiguration in Ivanova Korita, citing concerns over potential clashes. The SOC controlled the site, located near the seat of the MOC in the historical capital of Cetinje. MOC leaders continued to state the ban constituted a violation of members’ basic human rights and requested state authorities allow MOC priests to practice in SOC-controlled Orthodox churches and monasteries.
In an October interview for Radio and Television of Montenegro, Prime Minister Markovic, commenting on a longstanding controversy surrounding an SOC church on Mt. Rumija, said he asked SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, “Do you really think that the state does not have the power to stop and knock down your illegal interventions? We can, and we can do it in one day, in one night. The baptistery and the church on Mt. Rumija, and all other churches you build without the agreement of the state.” Markovic added the government did not wish to do this, preferring instead to come to an agreement through dialogue. The prime minister stated, however, the metropolitan did not “accept that Montenegro was independent” or “respect any law,” and government would make the rule of law known to all in the country, “including the SOC.” Analysts stated the church’s placement on a hilltop in an area equally important to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims made it a constant focus of attention, and the SOC’s move to reinforce the structure during the year reignited the controversy, causing accusations from residents of the majority-Muslim area that SOC’s actions were deliberately provocative. Amfilohije suggested, in a July speech after liturgy at the church, that he hoped the government would finish paving the roads near it instead of removing it.
The government continued its policy of not providing restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav communist government. Although government officials said previously the revised law on religious communities would address restitution issues, the law did not do so. Government officials said they would introduce a new law to address restitution but had not done so at year’s end.
Government officials publicly supported the construction of a new synagogue in Podgorica on a number of occasions and publicly sent good wishes for Jewish holidays.
On October 31, President Djukanovic opened the annual Mahar conference in Budva, stating “The appointment of a chief rabbi in Montenegro is a bright spot that we are all happy about. Rabbi [Ari] Edelkopf is a not only the chief rabbi of the Jewish community, but for the entire country of Montenegro, and we will surely continue our fruitful cooperation with the Jewish community working with him.” The resident of the Jewish Community, Djordje Raicevic Levi, commenting on the positive relationships which he said the community enjoyed in the country, said, “In addition to our very supportive government, local, regional, and international organizations play a vital ongoing role in Montenegro’s Jewish community.”
The SOC said the MOI continued to deny visas to its clergy based on discriminatory procedures that required work documentation from a registered employer, although the SOC was not legally required to register and was fully recognized. The SOC stated it had 172 open legal cases of individuals who could not obtain public documents, identification cards, driver’s licenses, or work permits, or could not access public health services and/or schooling. The SOC also said the Ministry of Education refused to introduce religious education into schools as an optional subject and wanted the law changed to allow for such an option.
Several religious groups expressed a desire for broader or clearer tax exemption rules. SOC officials often stated that religious communities did not truly benefit from a tax-free status, as they generally paid value-added tax (VAT) on all their purchases, and private individuals could not deduct donations they made to religious organizations from their taxes. The Jewish community also raised the issue of VAT payments on their purchases, and the Islamic community said it had to pay a sizeable VAT on imported funeral vehicles it had received as a donation.
The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use to maintain religious shrines, for education or cultural projects, or for social and medical insurance for clergy. Both registered and unregistered religious communities remained eligible to apply for this funding. For the first 10 months of the year, the MOC received 38,390 euros ($43,100), the ICM 29,454 euros ($33,100), the SOC 41,521 euros ($46,700), the Jewish community 17,000 euros ($19,100), and the Catholic Church 21,929 euros ($24,600). Recognized religious communities also continued to receive in-kind assistance from other government ministries and from local governments.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The SOC said it could not perform religious ceremonies on the foundations of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog in the village of Martinici, in Gusinje, a municipality that is 94 percent Muslim, due to protests by local residents. According to the SOC, a municipal-level official threatened to burn down the church if it were restored. According to SOC reports, a cross placed on the ruins of the church on Easter Sunday was destroyed and thrown into the river during the night of Easter Monday. Police did not identify the perpetrators.
The ownership of 750 Orthodox sites, most of which were held by the SOC, remained contested between the SOC and MOC. Both groups said they wanted the government and law on religion to address the issue in their favor, but observers stated their points remained irreconcilable. The two groups celebrated Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter at separate locations, and police continued to provide protection around each group’s celebrations.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet with government officials responsible for religious issues at the MHMR and at local mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, with officials in other ministries including the prime minister’s cabinet, and with the president to discuss relations between the government and religious groups and the draft law on religion.
On September 10, the Ambassador met with SOC Bishop Joanikije and other church officials to discuss their concerns regarding the draft law on religion as well as their relations with the government and other religious communities. On September 12, the Ambassador met with Metropolitan Mihailo of the MOC and discussed government relations, property concerns, the draft law on religion, and interreligious relations.
On October 23, the Ambassador met with President of the Jewish Community Dorde Raicevic Levi and Rabbi Eldekop to discuss the community’s plans for a Jewish community center in Podgorica. On October 25, the Ambassador met with Catholic Archbishop Rrok Gjonlleshaj and discussed the role of the Catholic Church in the country.
The Ambassador met with Metropolitan Amfilohije on November 5 to discuss the challenges the SOC faced, its position on the draft law on religion, and the SOC’s strained relationship with the government. The Ambassador also met with representatives of Muslim communities in Podgorica, Rozaje, Pljevlja, and other municipalities to discuss the issues they faced, including perceived malign Russian influence.
Other embassy officials had regular contact with representatives of all major religious communities in the country, such as the SOC, MOC, Jewish community, ICM, and Catholic Church, to discuss their concerns, particularly in light of the religious law.
On May 10, the Ambassador hosted an iftar at the Islamic Cultural Center in Bar for representatives of various religious, political, cultural, and business communities and civil society, in which participants discussed interfaith tolerance and religious moderation. The iftar included the participation not only of formal representatives of the major faiths but also of youth and women of various faiths, creating an opportunity for broad interfaith dialogue.
On November 15-16, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with leaders of the SOC, MOC, Catholic Church, Islamic Community, and Jewish Community, discussing concerns over the draft law on religious freedom, particularly on property. He also called for participation in regional reconciliation efforts and detailed his vision for religious leaders to lead the process, securing the willingness of all faith leaders. After his meetings, the Ambassador at Large called for open dialogue on the new draft law, noting that many groups were dissatisfied with it. On November 15, the Ambassador hosted a discussion on the draft law on religion for the Ambassador at Large, legal counsels of religious groups, and government officials. The event brought representatives of a broad range of faiths and of government to discuss the issue together for the first time, and participants hailed it as a success.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and religious expression. It provides for equality before the law for all individuals regardless of religious belief. The constitution cites by name five religious groups that automatically receive tax exemptions and other benefits. Other religious groups must register to receive the same benefits. Registration applications by the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid (OAO) and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II, following a 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), a Sufi community, again reported harassment of its members by the government and the Islamic Religious Community in North Macedonia (IRC, but also written as ICM). 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 April after Skopje Basic Court II recognized an imam the IRC had dismissed as its head, the IRC accused government officials of a “coup attempt” and appealed the ruling to the Skopje Appellate Court, which remanded the case to the basic court in October. The lower court immediately reversed its earlier decision, leaving in place the existing IRC leadership.
In September unknown persons attempted to assault the founder of the Religious Community of Orthodox Albanians, who blamed an ineffective government investigation of a previous assault. Police said they charged six persons for instances of theft, arson, or vandalism against religious targets, but did not identify the perpetrators of a separate attempted arson of a church in Cheflik belonging to the Evangelical Church. The MOC-OA reported 12 incidents of theft and one of attempted arson of its churches, and the government reported two incidents of vandalism against Orthodox cemeteries; this compares with 26 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites in 2018. The government also reported one theft at a mosque. 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 a headquarters.
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. The Secretary of State met with MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan and two MOC-OA bishops during a visit to the country in October. Embassy officials met with representatives from a variety of religious minorities, including Bektashis, Jews, and members of smaller Christian denominations, and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with religious freedom. The embassy supported Holocaust education efforts and sponsored civil society and religious representatives on visits to the United States for programs focused on promoting religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the last 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 (Shia) groups, including several Bektashi orders. Other religious groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Roman 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.
Most Muslims live in the northern and western parts of the country. The majority of Orthodox Christians live in the central and southeastern regions. 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
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality of rights for all citizens regardless of religious belief. It provides for freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their faith freely and in public, individually, or with others. It provides for the protection of religious identity of all communities. The constitution states restriction of freedoms and rights may not be applied to personal conviction, conscience, thought, and religious confession. The constitution cites five religious groups – the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Religious Community in North Macedonia, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Jewish Community – and stipulates they, as well as other religious communities and 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, and 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 by themselves and may result in harsher sentences for other crimes when hate crime elements are involved.
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 37 religious organizations, including the five named in the constitution. The total consists of 17 churches, nine religious communities, and 11 religious groups. Once registered, a church, religious community, or religious group is exempt from taxes and eligible to apply for restitution of properties nationalized during the communist era (provided they 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 distinguish 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. 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 required nor permitted to take the required national matriculation examination (baccalaureate) and therefore are currently 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 states 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 may approve or deny them the right to conduct religious work within the country. 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.
On May 29, the EC released its 2019 report on the country, which called on the government to implement earlier ECHR rulings to respect the rights of the OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community. In 2017, following appeals by the two groups, the ECHR had 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 2019 EC report welcomed the government’s decision to reopen registration proceedings and ensure redress for both groups, in compliance with the Convention.
In October the government paid the OAO 9,500 euros ($10,700) in compensation for damages and court fees as required by the 2017 ECHR ruling. OAO authorities stated 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.
In June the government paid the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community 7,000 euros ($7,900) for damages and court fees as required by the 2018 ECHR ruling, but took no further action. The group’s 2010 registration application remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II at year’s end.
During the year, Skopje Basic Court II received no new registration applications. The court approved in July a 2018 request from the Gospel of Christ Church to change its registration from community to group. The Community of Muslims, which had been rejected for registration in 2016, withdrew its renewed application in April without giving an explanation.
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 in the media. The OAO continued to accuse the government of bias against it and of failure to respect domestic and international law. For the eighth year, the Bektashi (Tetovo) reported to police harassment by individuals occupying the Harabati Baba Teqe compound in Tetovo as part of an ongoing property dispute with the IRC. Police were still investigating at year’s end.
In May the Bektashi (Tetovo) condemned the appropriation by the IRC of a parcel of land adjacent to the Harabati Baba Teqe compound. Bektashi (Tetovo) leader Arben Sulejmani stated the government had deprived it of property by not allowing the group to register as a religious entity, despite the favorable 2018 ECHR ruling. The IRC-affiliated Mufti of Tetovo announced in May the construction of two marketplaces on the parcel and stated the government recognized the land as Waqf (Islamic religious property) in 2017 and restituted it in 2018.
On April 17, Skopje Basic Court II approved the request of Skender Buzaku to make him the official leader of the IRC. The IRC dismissed Buzaku as leader in 2015. In his request, Buzaku said an extraordinary session of the IRC Assembly in March elected him following the “irrevocable resignation” of Reis Sulejman Rexhepi as IRC leader. According to the IRC, no such extraordinary session took place. The IRC leadership challenged the court decision at the Skopje Appellate Court, stating the Basic Court’s ruling was based on forged documents using IRC seals stolen in 2015. On October 3, the Skopje Appellate Court voided the ruling of Skopje Basic Court II and remanded the case to that court. On October 4, Skopje Basic Court II reversed its previous ruling, stating Buzaku did not meet the minimum age requirement to become leader of the IRC and confirming Rexhepi as leader. In April the IRC filed a criminal complaint against Buzaku, stating Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski supported him. Both officials and CRRCG Director Darijan Sotirovski denied government involvement. During a press conference in October, Buzaku accused Rexhepi of embezzlement and money laundering. The IRC filed slander charges against Buzaku the next day.
The IRC again stated the government had restored less than 30 percent of property the state seized before gaining independence in 1991. The Husamedin Pasha Mosque in Shtip, nationalized in 1955, remained in dispute. According to IRC leaders, police blocked the mosque entrance and harassed janitorial staff, preventing the facility’s upkeep and the IRC from hosting events and blocking it from regaining rightful ownership of the mosque complex.
The IRC stated the government continued to deny a construction permit for a mosque in the ethnically mixed village of Lazhec due to pressure from residents. The IRC also said the government continued to deny a permit for reconstruction of the mosque in Prilep, considering it a cultural monument under government, not IRC jurisdiction. In April, with financial support from the Turkish government, the IRC commenced reconstruction of the Ali Pasha Mosque in Ohrid. The municipality issued the permit after a yearlong delay, reportedly due in part to public opposition to the height of the minaret, and the mosque was reopened in November.
In March IRC head Rexhepi said the government 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.
In September an organization of Vlachs in Bitola said the government transferred ownership of the historic Vlach-built Saint Konstantin and Elena Church in 2016 to the MOC-OA without the community’s consent, depriving the organization of its rightful ownership of the church.
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 Stevo Pendarovski, and other government officials often met only with the five constitutionally recognized groups.
Some religious groups, parents, and Ministry of Education officials stated the Orthodox priests and imams hired to teach the required nondenominational introduction courses on religion and ethics often emphasize the practice of their religions instead of presenting a neutral overview of different faiths.
At the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary Session in Luxembourg on December 5, the IHRA accepted North Macedonia’s request to elevate its status from observer to liaison, the first step to becoming a full member.
In March the Ministry of Education and the Institute for the Cultural and Spiritual Heritage of the Albanians opened a Holocaust Education and Research Department. The department’s stated goals are to defend religious freedom, promote respect for religious diversity, and encourage interfaith cooperation as a means of combating anti-Semitism.
The CRRCG reported it issued letters of consent and visas to all foreign missionaries and clerics who submitted requests for religious work during the year.
The government did not fund travel of registered religious groups for religious reasons but facilitated some travel procedures through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This included obtaining Saudi visas free of charge for the Hajj and working directly with the Saudi government, since there is no Saudi embassy in the country.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In September, according to Professor Branko Sinadinovski, founder of the Religious Community of Orthodox Albanians, unknown individuals attempted to assault him in front of his home in Skopje. Police intervened to stop the attack. Sinadinovski said he had been targeted several times before (he was assaulted in 2018), and his life was under threat because he had publicly declared himself an Orthodox Albanian. Sinadinovski said he attributed the September incident to lack of effective action by the Ministry of Interior following the previous attack against 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 a headquarters. Bektashi representatives continued to express concerns that the renovation of the complex would displace them from the compound entirely. The Bektashi could not assert a claim of ownership to the compound because they remained unregistered. At year’s end, the renovation project remained pending until completion of feasibility studies.
In March police filed charges against an individual, identified as K.D., for painting a swastika on the former Bulgarian police station, now a memorial museum of the uprising against fascism, and other buildings in Prilep, under the section of the criminal code for “damage or destruction of protected objects, cultural heritage or natural rarities.” Because the perpetrator was a minor, he was released with a warning.
Police identified and charged six persons with acts of theft, arson, or vandalism against religious targets during the year, compared to one in 2018. The six were in the court process at the end of the year. MOC-OA reported 13 acts of theft of icons, altar decorations, or money in Orthodox churches, and the government reported two incidents of vandalism against Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 26 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites the previous year. The government also reported one theft in a mosque.
In January unknown persons attempted to set fire to the Evangelical church in the village of Cheflik, in Cheshinovo-Obleshevo Municipality. At year’s end, police had not charged any suspects.
In March a tomb in the yard of an Orthodox church was vandalized in the village of Vapila, Ohrid Municipality. In April unknown persons vandalized the Orthodox cemetery in the village of Brnjarci, Gazi Baba Municipality. By year’s end, police did not identify suspects in either incident.
In December the Helsinki Committee in the country registered eight incidents of hate speech with a religious component during the year. In one case in November, an individual posted threats against members of the OAO on the “Free Orthodoxy” website, calling for their “collective and brutal extermination.”
The Holocaust Fund, an NGO, continued to work with the Ministry of Education on a project to train teachers to teach secondary school students about the Holocaust and Jewish history.
In March the Holocaust Memorial Center officially opened its multimillion dollar permanent exhibition, commemorating North Macedonia’s Jewish population and the 7,148 Jews sent to the Treblinka death camp during World War II. As in previous years, the Center conducted Holocaust education programs in partnership with the Ministry of Education.
In May Pope Francis visited Skopje and met with then-president Gjorge Ivanov and other political leaders, civil society, religious leaders, and youth. He visited the Mother Theresa Memorial and celebrated a Mass for approximately 15,000 persons. Pope Francis praised the harmony between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the country and the welcome it had extended to refugees from the Middle East. He said the country’s example showed peaceful coexistence was possible amid rich diversity.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy and U.S. government officials engaged 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, including improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups. The Ambassador also discussed with religious leaders interfaith tolerance and the importance of open dialogue with faith groups.
The Secretary of State met with MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan and two bishops from the MOC-OA during an October visit to the country.
Embassy officials met with IRC leader Rexhepi and Archbishop Stefan to discuss religious freedom issues, including charges of religious groups’ interference in judicial cases (such as on the IRC leadership) and in elections, and government favoritism toward certain religious groups.
Embassy officials also met with representatives from a variety of minority religious groups, including the Bektashi, Jews, and Christian minority denominations, and with NGOs concerned with religious freedom.
The embassy funded the participation of three teachers in an international summer academy in Berlin which focused on Holocaust education and 20th century Jewish history, among other topics.
Partnering with the Holocaust Fund, the embassy also provided the expenses for 40 teachers from the Western Balkans (30 from North Macedonia and 10 from Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina) to attend a seminar in Skopje on interfaith relations in October. The seminar included history lectures, workshops on creating curricula and cross-cultural projects and visits to the oldest synagogue outside of Israel at the archeological site of Stobi, and to the permanent exhibition of the Holocaust Memorial Center.
In October the embassy sponsored the visit by eight religious and civil society leaders to the United States to participate in a program where they met with thought leaders to discuss religious freedom, religious diversity, the protection of cultural heritage, and the role of religious narratives. The group included representatives of the MOC-OA and IRC, the Jewish and Bektashi communities, the Evangelical Methodists and civil society.
The embassy posted 14 messages on social media regarding religious freedom reaching more than 70,000 followers. Topics included the Secretary of State’s messages on the importance of protecting religious freedom and marking the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.