The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization. The agreements recognize each group as one of the country’s main faith communities and address property restitution and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. VUSH reported the government continued not to allocate funds to evangelical Christian churches, despite the State Committee on Religion’s advocacy on their behalf for financial support. The government legalized 92 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 164 in 2019, while the status of 32 additional properties remained under review. Corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction on property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to claim their property, according to numerous civil society sources. The AMC, Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about property restitution, including provisions in the law that required them to resubmit their claims in a new forum. VUSH leaders reported continued difficulties in acquiring permission to construct places of worship as well as problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi community and the Albanian Muslim Community (AMC, formerly translated as the Albanian Islamic Community) reported problems defending the title to certain properties. The AMC reported the government denied its application for a permit to build a new campus for Beder University, requested in early 2018. Prior to its October 28 online forum against anti-Semitism, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures, canceling gatherings, including for worship, for two months. The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held several online and in-person meetings domestically and internationally.
The U.S. embassy urged government officials to accelerate the property claims process and to return religious groups’ buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism among young people. On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.
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 house of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – who are predominantly SOC, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, respectively. The government again failed to comply with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling on it to open these positions to other minorities. By law, no Muslim group may register or open a mosque without the approval of the Islamic Community (IC). The human rights ministry made little progress implementing instructions making it responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The Presidency again failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. Religious groups, in communities where they are a minority, reported authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against them in providing services and granting building permits. UNICEF reported students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious discrimination in schools. The Interreligious Council (IRC), comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported inadequate investigation and prosecution of religiously motivated crimes.
The IRC registered 14 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites, including one involving a shooting at a cross, but said the number of actual incidents was likely much higher. In October, vandals damaged the Sultan Sulaiman Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, a designated national monument. The Saint Sava Orthodox church in Blazuj near Sarajevo was repeatedly vandalized, and several Catholic memorials and chapels were also vandalized. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to the police. The incidents ranged from threatening religious leaders and disturbing religious ceremonies with threats to vandalizing cemeteries and other religious sites. In contrast with the previous year, the OSCE did not report any anti-Semitic incidents. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents in an August survey expressed support for maintaining religious education in schools.
U.S. embassy representatives emphasized the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities to government officials. In May, the Ambassador met with the newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge the groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith and reconciliation-themed activities.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. In December, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began hearing an appeal by 14 Romani Muslims convicted in 2019 of spreading Salafi Islam, among other charges. Muslim leaders again said several municipalities denied permission to build new or rehabilitate existing religious facilities. The Evangelical Alliance and some other religious groups stated the government did not apply COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups equally, favoring the BOC. The European Court of Human Rights stopped the deportation of three Uyghur Muslims to China. In February, a Shumen court ruled the municipality’s ordinance restricting proselytizing was unconstitutional. A parliamentarian and member of the governing political coalition criticized the ruling, which was being appealed, calling Jehovah’s Witnesses a “dangerous sect.” In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Sofia mayor’s ban on the annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s, restricting the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque. The academy of sciences published a report, backed by several government ministries, denying the World War II-era government had sent Jews to forced labor camps but instead had tried to save them from the Nazis.
The Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shalom reported death threats, increased incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer instances of harassment and threats, attributing the change to COVID-19 restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses said some media continued to misrepresent their activities. Protestants stated media published information about members of their community who tested positive for COVID-19, while not doing so for members of any other religious group. An Alpha research survey issued in January of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers found rates of mistrust of Muslims was 26 percent, of Jews and Protestants 10 percent, and of Catholics 8 percent.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives supporting interfaith dialogue with government officials, including representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local governments. The Ambassador and embassy officials also met with minority religious groups and supported civil society efforts to encourage tolerance and stimulate interfaith dialogue.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law. The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and specific tax and other benefits; 19 other registered religious communities have agreements with the state offering benefits not available to registered religious communities without such agreements or to unregistered religious groups. Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) representatives said that although some property had been returned, the restitution of property seized by the Yugoslavia government remained an outstanding issue. This was echoed by representatives of the Catholic Church. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that some police officers spray-painted Christian crosses on the heads of presumably Muslim migrants attempting to illegally enter the country during Ramadan with the intent to “mark, humiliate, and traumatize” them. The Interior Ministry said The Guardian’s report was a “premeditated attack” against the government that incited religious intolerance without knowledge of the facts, as authorities maintained “excellent relations with the Islamic religious community.” Interior Ministry officials said they investigated all allegations and found no irregularities in the conduct of police in this case. In October, Minister of Culture and Media Nina Obuljen Korzinek attended the installation of the first of 20 Stolpersteine stones or “stumbling blocks” recognizing Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Zagreb and said the project would educate society regarding the Holocaust. Senior government officials, a representative from the Alliance of Anti-Fascists, and leaders of the Serbian, Roma, and Jewish communities jointly commemorated victims of the World War II concentration camp at Jasenovac for the first time since 2015. On January 23, the parliamentary Education, Science, and Culture Committee for the first time adopted a resolution encouraging state institutions and civil society organizations to promote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
SOC representatives anecdotally reported incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity increased compared with 2019, including physical and verbal attacks, especially in the city of Vukovar, a site of intense fighting during the war in the 1990s, although they said they did not have detailed records on the number of incidents. According to SOC representatives, it was unclear if these incidents were religiously or ethnically motivated. As in recent years, members of some Jewish groups reported hate speech, especially on the internet, and incidents such as graffiti on Jewish-owned buildings. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed concerns regarding the use of Ustasha (pro-Nazi World War II era government) insignia in society. On February 4-5, the country’s Islamic leaders and the Muslim World League, in cooperation with the Croatian Conference of Catholic Bishops, organized an international conference entitled “Human Fraternity as the Foundation of Peace and Security in the World,” focusing on world peace and coexistence.
U.S. embassy officials discussed the status and treatment of religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with cabinet ministers and other senior government officials. During the year, embassy officials attended major events that emphasized the importance of Holocaust remembrance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials continued to encourage the government to amend legislation covering Holocaust-era property restitution to allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives from a broad spectrum of religious groups. In January, the embassy launched a monthly diversity and inclusion initiative in which embassy staff engaged representatives from different religious and secular groups to promote tolerance and discuss challenges and cooperation among different religious communities.
The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship, with some restrictions. It recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” On October 7, an appeals court in Athens ruled the Golden Dawn political party, commonly characterized as neo-Nazi, was a criminal organization, finding seven of its 18 party leaders guilty of directing a criminal organization. The court found Golden Dawn members responsible for a series of physical attacks and verbal harassment since 2012 against perceived outsiders, including Muslim asylum seekers and Jews. On February 29, the government issued new curricula to conform to a 2019 Council of State ruling that the school curricula failed to “develop a religious conscience in students” as required by the constitution. Changes and adaptations included the removal of topics not relevant to the Greek Orthodox faith and the introduction of new material. Legislation approved on January 20 removed the requirement that middle and high schools list each student’s religion and nationality, following 2019 rulings by the Data Protection Authority and the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court. On June 25, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the government had violated the European Union Convention on Human Rights because a registry office noted on the birth certificate that the child’s name came from a civil act, not a christening, which violated the right not to disclose religious beliefs. On June 18, the ECtHR determined the government owed a Muslim widow 51,000 euros ($62,600) for applying “sharia against her late husband’s wish.” During the year, the government authorized the construction of several places of worship, including a mosque, a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall, and an Egyptian Coptic Church temple. It also issued 14 new house of prayer or worship permits for several Christian denominations and five permits for Islamic houses of prayer. On November 2, the first government-funded mosque opened in Athens. On June 25, authorities closed an unlicensed mosque operating in Piraeus. A civil court also approved the registration of a Protestant group as a religious legal entity. In April, media reported that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church wrote to the Prime Minister, stating his opposition to the government’s announced plans to allow all houses of worship to open their doors for individual prayers in small numbers but not allow services due to COVID-19. The Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups, followed all government restrictions throughout the year. On January 27, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended memorial events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and became the first Greek premier to visit the former concentration camp. According to Jewish leaders, the government continued to help the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in its efforts to recover its original archives, found by Soviet troops in a castle in Lower Silesia, Germany, following Germany’s defeat and subsequently transferred to Moscow.
On social and other media, individuals continued to directly and indirectly link Jews to conspiracy theories about Jewish global power. In January, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) issued a statement protesting a sketch showing the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a political cartoon arguing against lifting protection of primary residencies from foreclosures after April 30. KIS called the cartoon unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror. The newspaper called the Jewish community’s reaction “justifiable,” stating it had not intended to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. Incidents of vandalism of religious properties continued during the year, with anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted on the historic synagogues in Trikala and in Larisa, in the central part of the country, at the Jewish cemeteries in metropolitan Athens, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki, as well as at the Holocaust monuments in Thessaloniki, Larisa, and in Drama. Police arrested a suspect for the acts of vandalism of Jewish sites in Larisa and another one for the vandalism that took place in Drama. Vandals damaged an old mosque in Trikala and, on dozens of occasions, Greek Orthodox churches in Thessaloniki, Lesvos, Crete, Samos, Xanthi, and Rodopi.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting government officials, and other embassy and consulate general representatives met with officials of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, including the Minister and the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and governors. They continued to discuss the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship and government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants. In meetings with government officials and religious leaders, including the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, U.S. government officials expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and attacks on Orthodox churches. On September 29, the U.S. Secretary of State, Ambassador, Consul General in Thessaloniki, and other embassy officials visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. On July 9, the Ambassador discussed with leaders the implementation of the new Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki. On October 7, the Ambassador met with KIS president David Saltiel to discuss legislation required to build the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the stalled return of the archives from Russia of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On December 15, parliament amended the constitution, adding language stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.” The amendment became effective on December 23. There are four tiers of religious groups, all of which may receive state funding and income-tax allocations from members. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court registered seven religious groups and rejected one, while four applications remained pending. The Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the religion law, which some religious and civil society groups considered discriminatory. The Muslim community said authorities continued to refuse to issue permits for cemeteries. Jewish organizations condemned the appointment of a new director of a state-run radio station whom they said had a long record of making anti-Semitic statements; the government’s inclusion of anti-Semitic writers and removal of a Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor from a mandatory school reading list; and the bestowal of a high state award to a historian widely viewed as anti-Semitic. They also continued to criticize the proposed House of Fates Holocaust museum as an attempt to obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Senior government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe.”
The Action and Protection Foundation, which monitored anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, one of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim leaders said that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, and there were cases of anti-Muslim discrimination. Members of radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups again commemorated the attempted “breakout” by German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. They laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators, and some wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage from some government-aligned media. A European Union (EU)-funded survey of residents in the country found 41 percent did not sympathize with Muslims and 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews; 49 percent agreed that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, and 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention. Ten and nine percent, respectively, thought Jews and Muslims were frequent targets of hate speech.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy officials and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives held meetings with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and other government agencies, as well as with local Jewish groups and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to discuss restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and the House of Fates Museum concept. In other meetings with the government and with religious leaders, embassy representatives advocated religious freedom and tolerance and discussed provisions of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In January, the embassy highlighted on its website and on social media the anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the attendance by the Charge d’Affaires at three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not provide a means for religious groups to acquire legal status. In September, the cabinet approved amendments that would provide religious groups with such status and enable them to conduct business in their name and gain certain tax benefits, but parliament did not act on these due to an unrelated lack of a quorum required to pass legislation. According to the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK), in multiple cases, public elementary schools denied female Muslim students in religious attire permission to attend classes. On September 4, the Kosovo and Serbian governments signed a list of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property. The SOC said a lack of constructive communication with some municipal governments prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from having free access to some SOC temples and graveyards. The SOC said the government failed to fully enforce the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZs) by failing to prevent road construction in the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ. The government halted the work in the SPZ in August following objections by the international community. Kosovo’s Implementation and Monitoring Committee (IMC), which includes the SOC, decided in November on the rehabilitation of the road in accordance with the law. Local and central authorities continued to ignore a 2016 court decision on SOC ownership of several land parcels next to the Decani monastery. Following a review, the government stated in August that, in many cemeteries managed by BIK under municipal contracts, a lack of municipal oversight enabled BIK to prevent other religious/nonreligious groups from conducting burial services according to their beliefs and to discriminate against religious minority groups. Kosovo Serb and Jewish communities said some municipalities did not properly maintain these communities’ cemeteries.
National police said they received reports of 57 incidents against religious sites or cemeteries during the year, compared with 61 in 2019. Police classified most of the incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites, although a few involved SOC and Catholic Church properties. According to the SOC, many incidents involving SOC religious sites were linked to Serb ethnicity as well as religion, and there were incidents not reported to police. In August, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that vandals damaged an SOC church in the Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren. In September, according to media and police, an SOC church was robbed in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic. On January 6 in Gjakova/Djakovica, local Kosovo Albanians, including families of persons missing from the 1998-1999 conflict, staged a protest, as they had since 2015, in front of the local SOC church, leading displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members to again cancel a pilgrimage there. SOC officials again complained about negative media reporting and criticism of Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava Janjic, such as claims the abbot was blocking local development by denying Decan/Decani municipality use of its property and resources.
U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage the government to enact amendments permitting religious groups to acquire legal status, enforce mechanisms to protect freedom of religion, implement legislation and judicial decisions pertaining to SOC religious sites, and resolve SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including equal protection and property rights concerns, with religious and civil society leaders and encouraged religious tolerance and improved interfaith dialogue.
The constitution protects the right of individuals to practice their religion and states religious groups are autonomous. The law cites the “exceptional importance” of Orthodox Christianity. Minority religious groups and civil society said authorities continued to favor the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC). On multiple occasions, particularly during the presidential election campaign, President Igor Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity. The Union of Pentecostal Churches said it remained unable to obtain a zoning permit from local government officials for a building it used for religious services in Copceac village but was able to obtain a permit for a newly built church in Scoreni village. At least 285 of 1,441 Orthodox churches continued to hold services in contravention of a government public health decree in March banning all public gatherings from March to May. In March, the Supreme Court of Justice reversed a government decision to dissolve the Falun Dafa and Falun Gong Associations. The two groups reregistered, but the Ministry of Justice retained the Falun symbol on its register of extremist material, in contravention of a 2019 court decision. Religious minorities reported no progress in obtaining government restitution or compensation for property confiscated prior to the country’s independence in 1992. The Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC) said the Public Services Agency (PSA) illegally registered an MOC religious community in a BOC-owned church. In December, the Chisinau Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the BOC and annulled agreements by which the government had transferred more than 800 monasteries and churches to the MOC for indefinite “protection and use.” The Islamic League said law enforcement was conducting an “unprecedented” investigation of its finances.
In the separatist Transnistria Region, Jehovah’s Witnesses said they remained unable to reregister as a religious organization, but, unlike in past years, there were no reports de facto authorities conscripted Jehovah’s Witnesses or forced them to engage in defense-related civilian service contrary to their beliefs. The Muslim community was unable to secure a site for a mosque after receiving a permit for one in 2019.
There were instances of vandalism and online hate speech against minority religious groups. In July, an unidentified person tried to set fire to a Pentecostal church by throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window. The Jewish Community of Moldova (JCM) reported anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet, the hijacking of a Jewish religious website, and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in Chisinau, Orhei, and Balti. The BOC reported frequent harassment by the MOC as well as local officials in several communities. Unlike in previous years, other minority religious groups did not cite specific instances of discrimination or harassment, a change they attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and their reduced communal activities.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials urged the government and parliament to advance initiatives to establish a Jewish heritage museum. The Ambassador spoke at a government-hosted commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in January, noting the importance of ensuring such an atrocity is never repeated. The Ambassador welcomed progress on the national action plan for implementing the Wiesel Commission Report’s recommendations and voiced support for further progress on Holocaust education. The Ambassador and other senior embassy staff urged the de facto authorities in Transnistria to respect the rights of religious minorities. The Ambassador held virtual meetings with religious leaders to encourage respect and tolerance for all religious groups, including during the fall presidential election. Embassy officials also discussed respect for religious freedom and enhanced interfaith cooperation with representatives of various religious groups throughout the year.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It specifies there is no state religion and stipulates equality and freedom for all religious communities. The law prohibits religious discrimination and hate speech. Religious groups, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), continued to state that the laws governing their legal status were inadequate. The SOC organized massive nationwide protests and prayer marches against a religion law – and particularly its property provisions – that went into effect in January. The new law requires religious groups to provide proof of ownership of certain religious property or lose title to it. Religious communities are not required to register but must do so to own property and hold bank accounts. The SOC refused to register. On December 29, the newly elected parliament passed amendments to the law that would remove the proof of property ownership provisions and alter the requirement that existing religious groups register to acquire legal status. The amendments had not become law by year’s end. Authorities arrested and detained SOC clergy on multiple occasions for what they said were violations of COVID-19 public health restrictions. Religious groups continued to dispute government ownership of religious properties and the transfer of cemetery ownership to municipalities or other entities. The SOC challenged transfers of properties that it said it owned by municipal authorities to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and private individuals. The SOC and MOC continued to dispute ownership of 750 Orthodox sites. A public school teacher in Bar was widely condemned and dismissed for inviting her students to participate in a prayer service at an SOC church. The SOC said the Ministry of Interior continued to deny visas to its clergy.
Following August parliamentary elections, there were reported acts of violence against religious groups and their members, including the shooting of an Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM) member’s home, the smashing of windows of ICM facilities, and threatening messages and acts of intimidation targeting Bosniaks and other Muslims in Pljevlja and other cities with religiously diverse populations. Religious and political leaders across the spectrum condemned the attacks and issued statements of support. After being criticized for slow progress in investigating the cases, police arrested three suspects for writing anti-Bosniak graffiti in the Pljevlja attacks on October 30.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed the law on religion and relations between religious groups and the government and advocated religious tolerance with the President and other government officials, including officials in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the Ministry of Justice, Human, and Minority Rights (MHMR), until December known as the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, and mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, and with religious representatives. After the attacks on the Muslim community following the parliamentary elections in August, the Ambassador met with the head of the ICM to express her concern and support.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and religious expression. It grants equality before the law for all individuals regardless of religious belief. An amendment to the constitution cites five religious groups that automatically receive tax exemptions and other benefits: the Macedonian Orthodox Church, Islamic Religious Community in North Macedonia (IRC), Catholic Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Jewish Community. Other religious groups must register to receive the same benefits. Registration applications by the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid (OAO), affiliated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community, a Sufi group, remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II, following a May 2019 European Commission (EC) report calling on the government to comply with previous European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings that the government should reconsider its earlier rejections of these groups’ applications. The Bektashi (Tetovo) again reported harassment of its members by the government and the IRC. The IRC said the government continued to show favoritism toward the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA), and smaller religious groups continued to report unequal government treatment compared with the five constitutionally named groups. In September, President Stevo Pendarovski and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev sent public letters asking Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to bestow autocephaly on the MOC-OA, actions the OAO characterized as government meddling in religious affairs. On March 10, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2013 working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion. On February 7, the governing political party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), in response to anti-Semitic statements on social media, condemned “all forms of hate speech, anti-Semitism, or any other direct or indirect humiliation or discrimination of individuals and groups.”
The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community continued to dispute the IRC’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate, the Harabati Baba Teqe, a complex the Bektashi (Tetovo) used as its headquarters. Media reported several incidents of theft, and the government reported one incident of vandalism against Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 12 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites in 2019. The government also reported one theft at a mosque. In January, the Jewish Community and the Holocaust Fund posted on social media their joint condemnation of hate speech and anti-Semitic comments. In May, the Jewish Community reported to authorities multiple anti-Semitic and hate speech postings by a Facebook group called “Ninurta Macedonia.” The investigation was pending at year’s end.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of religious minority groups, including Bektashis (Tetovo), Jews, and Evangelical Methodists.
The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state, and religious groups have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.” According to the law on religious freedom and religious denominations, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country, but it also recognizes the role of “other churches and denominations.” The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations. In addition, civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law. During the year, the government approved four applications for registration of religious associations. Religious groups stated restrictions meant to contain the spread of COVID-19 were unfair because a March ban on travel outside the home contained an exemption for travel to work but not for travel to places of worship. In September, the National Council for Combating Discrimination ruled the lack of an agreement with all recognized religious denominations on Easter observances while COVID-19 restrictions were in force constituted discrimination. The council recommended the Ministry of Interior be impartial towards all religious denominations and establish nondiscriminatory rules for the exercise of freedom of belief. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. During the year, the government rejected 500 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 83, compared with 474 claims rejected and 48 approved in 2019; it again approved no claims for the Greek Catholic Church. In February, the standing bureaus of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies appointed Parliamentarian Silviu Vexler to the honorary position of “High Representative of the Parliament for Fighting Antisemitism, Protecting the Memory of Holocaust Victims and Developing Jewish Life.”
Some minority religious groups continued to report at times ROC priests and adherents blocked their access to cemeteries. In June, the Impreuna Agency for Community Development released a survey on the perceptions of Roma and other ethnic and religious minorities in the country, including Jews. According to findings, 44 percent of respondents had little or no trust in Jews and 30 percent would accept Jews as friends or relatives. Some private media outlets depicted religious minority groups as a threat. In October, an article published by the news site activenews.ro mentioned the alleged religious affiliation of several government officials, purportedly members of the Baha’i, Unitarian, Reformed, Muslim, or Roman Catholic faiths, and called them “anti-Orthodox Talibans” for imposing COVID-19-related restrictions on religious activities. According to a study released by the Wiesel Institute in May, several articles published online stated Jews or the state of Israel were responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak and were profiting from the health crisis.
Embassy officials continued to advocate with the government for property restitution and religious tolerance. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official participated in several Holocaust commemorations and spoke out against anti-Semitism. Using its Facebook page, the embassy emphasized respect for religious freedom and paid tribute to Holocaust victims. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Muslim community to discuss ways to promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion; forbids the establishment of a state religion; guarantees equality for all religious groups; and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. On May 24, the Ministry of Justice resolved the contested leadership election of the Jewish Community of Belgrade in favor of Aleksandar Jinker. The government continued to return heirless and unclaimed properties seized during the Holocaust; it also continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later. The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches remained unregistered. Leaders of the country’s two Islamic communities said the fact that, due to an internal dispute, neither had authority to deal with the government regarding the entire Muslim community created difficulty in coordinating property restitution claims and in selecting religious instructors for public school courses on religion. On February 24, parliament adopted a law establishing a Holocaust memorial site at Staro Sajmiste, a World War II-era concentration camp in Belgrade. The law also incorporated another former concentration camp in Belgrade, Topovske Supe, into the memorial. On February 26, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. On September 4, leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed a series of commitments in Washington, D.C., brokered at the White House, that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property.
In February, unknown individuals wrote anti-Semitic messages and Nazi graffiti on multiple buildings in Novi Sad. In April, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Security, Investigation, and Defense warned citizens against Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic and characterized their proselytizing activities as sinister. Jewish leaders reported a growth in anti-Semitism online during the pandemic. Anti-Semitic literature continued to be available in some bookstores. Smaller, nontraditional groups, mainly Protestant Churches, said they encountered continued public distrust and misunderstanding and said some websites and traditional media and members of the public often branded their religious groups as “sects,” a term with a strong negative connotation in the Serbian language. According to an EU Fundamental Rights Agency report released in September, there were 30 anti-Semitic incidents in the country between 2009 and 2019, 11 of which resulted in criminal charges.
U.S. embassy officials encouraged parliament to adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Embassy officials urged the government to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property, promoted continued interfaith dialogue, and engaged with officials on the status of the government’s relationship with religious groups. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives from a wide range of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, cooperation with the government, interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, and property restitution.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private. It states all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits incitement of religious hatred or intolerance. The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and Ministry of Justice (MOJ) continued a joint research project to establish the scope of Jewish heirless properties seized by the Nazis or their collaborators. The report from the project was under review at year’s end. Restitution efforts remained complicated by an earlier law on property nationalization claims that generally excluded property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945. Muslims continued to ask the government to provide pork-free meals in public institutions. Muslim groups again reported difficulties in receiving services in hospitals, prisons, and the military. A government response to the Muslim community’s request to reserve special areas in cemeteries for Muslim graves and allow gravestones to face Mecca remained under review. An ecumenical group of churches and the Islamic Community of Slovenia helped the government devise a COVID-19 assistance package for religious communities in November. Most Muslim religious workers, however, were not eligible for this assistance because they were not citizens of the country.
Muslim groups reported obstacles in accessing halal food and spiritual care, and in circumcising their male children. The Islamic Community opened the country’s first mosque on February 7 in a limited capacity, although it was closed most of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions. Secretary-General of the Islamic Community Nevzet Poric stated that anti-Muslim hate speech was present on social media.
U.S. embassy officials met with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the Ministry of Culture (MOC) Office for Religious Communities, to discuss the ongoing concerns of religious groups regarding the legal requirement to stun animals before slaughter, the opinion of the human rights ombudsman that circumcision of male children is not permissible for nonmedical reasons, and the state of interfaith dialogue. In September, a senior U.S. official urged the MOJ Higher Secretary to demonstrate the country’s commitment to Holocaust survivors and take steps to revitalize Jewish life in the country. During the year, embassy officials organized a roundtable with local university representatives and the head of the World Religions Program at Ljubljana University to discuss issues related to religious freedom, and organized Zero Discrimination Day, which featured remarks at the embassy by a representative of the Islamic Community on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy amplified its engagement on religious freedom issues through social media.