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 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 favorable tax and other treatment; 54 other registered religious communities that have agreements with the state receive equivalent treatment that registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups do not receive. During the year the state registered a newly established religious community called the Catholic Old Church. Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) representatives said lack of restitution of property seized by the Yugoslavia government remained an outstanding issue. Atheist groups continued to complain that Roman Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. Representatives of the Jewish and Serbian communities expressed concerns about the rise of neo-Ustasha sentiment and historical revisionism about atrocities committed by the pro-Nazi government during the Second World War (WWII) against those communities. They said the government did not take a strong enough stand against historical revisionism and downplayed the public display of symbols of the Ustasha regime. They also said the current exhibition of the WWII-era Jasenovac concentration camp obscures the cruelty toward victims and fails to explain the affiliation of the victims persecuted by the Ustasha regime. In August the High Misdemeanor Court fined a singer who used the Nazi-era Ustasha salute while performing a popular nationalist song. In an article published in June, media characterized Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ruza Tomasic as sympathetic to the fascist Ustasha movement through her statements defending elements of the movement and leader Ante Pavelic. Jewish and Serb leaders, the latter largely Orthodox, and representatives of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters again boycotted the government’s annual commemoration at the Jasenovac concentration camp, citing the government’s lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues.
SOC representatives reported an increased number of incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity compared with 2018, including physical and verbal attacks. According to SOC representatives, however, it was unclear if these incidents were religiously or ethnically motivated. In a European Commission study published in September, 40 percent of the respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 58 percent said it was rare. On January 25, the Holocaust Remembrance Project published a “Holocaust Revisionist Report,” giving the country a “red card for revisionism” (the worst possible rating). The report pointed to the continued use of the wartime fascist Ustasha salute at public events, the relative lack of Holocaust commemoration sites, outstanding restitution issues, and what it said were President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s contradictory statements on the Ustasha.
U.S. embassy officials discussed the status and treatment of religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with the government. U.S. officials encouraged the government to amend existing 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.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 86.3 percent of the population is Catholic, 4.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 1.5 percent Muslim. Nearly 4 percent self-identify as nonreligious or atheist. Other religious groups include Jews, Protestants, and other Christians. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 1,700 Jews.
Religious affiliation correlates closely with ethnicity. Ethnic Serbs are predominantly members of the SOC and live primarily in cities and areas bordering Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most members of other minority religious groups reside in urban areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for equality of rights regardless of religion, as well as freedom of conscience and religious expression. It prohibits incitement of religious hatred. According to the constitution, religious communities shall be equal under the law and separate from the state; they are free to conduct religious services publicly as well as open and manage schools and charitable organizations under the protection and with the assistance of the state.
The Roman Catholic Church receives state financial support and other benefits established by four concordats between the government and the Holy See. These agreements provide for state financing for salaries and pensions of some religious officials associated with religious education through government-managed pension and health funds. These agreements also stipulate state funding for religious education in public schools.
The law defines the legal position of religious communities and determines eligibility for government funding and tax benefits. Registered religious communities are exempt from taxes on the purchase of real estate, the profit/capital gains tax, and taxes on donations. According to the law, a religious community previously active as a legal entity before enactment of the current law in 2002 (amended in 2013) need only submit its name, the location of its headquarters, information on the office of the person authorized to represent it, and the seal and stamp it uses to register. To register as a religious community, a religious group without prior legal status must have at least 500 members and have been registered as an association, with at least three members, for at least five years. To register as a religious community, a group submits a list of its members and documentation outlining the group’s activities and bylaws and describing its mission to the Ministry of Administration. Nonregistered religious groups may operate freely but do not receive tax benefits. They may conduct financial transactions as legal entities. A contractual agreement with the state, which grants a registered religious community eligibility for further funding and benefits, defines the community’s role and activities and provides for collaboration with the government in areas of joint interest, such as education, health, and culture.
There are 55 registered religious communities, including the Roman Catholic Church, SOC, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Christian Adventist Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Croatian Old Catholic Church, Catholic Old Church, Evangelical Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Reformed Christian Church, Union of Baptist Churches, Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Union of Pentecostal Churches of Christ, Coordination Committee of Jewish Communities in Croatia (an umbrella group of nine distinct Jewish communities), Jewish Community of Virovitica, Bet Israel (a Jewish group), and the Islamic Community of Croatia. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, 19 religious communities have formal agreements with the state that more clearly define activities and cooperation, such as in the areas of marriage and of religious education in public schools. These groups may access state funds for religious activities.
The state recognizes marriages conducted by registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state, eliminating the need for civil registration. Marriages conducted by registered communities that have not concluded agreements with the state, or by nonregistered religious groups, require civil registration.
Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may not conduct religious education in public schools or access state funds in support of religious activities, including charitable work, counseling, building costs, and clergy salaries; however, they may engage in worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. Only registered religious communities, with or without agreements with the state, may provide spiritual counsel in prisons, hospitals, and the military.
Public schools at both the primary and secondary levels must offer religious education, although students may opt out without providing specific grounds. The Catholic catechism is the predominant religious text used. Other religious communities that have agreements with the state may also offer religious education classes in schools if there are seven or more students of that faith. Eligible religious communities provide the instructors and the state pays their salaries. Private religious schools are eligible for state assistance and follow a national curriculum. Registered religious communities may have their own schools. Unregistered religious groups may not have their own schools.
Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in the seventh and eighth grades of elementary school and during four years of high school.
The law allows foreign citizens whose property was confiscated during and after the Holocaust era to seek compensation or restitution if the applicant’s country has a bilateral restitution treaty with the state; however, no such bilateral treaties currently exist. Two court cases have held that such treaties are not required; however, the law has not changed. The law does not allow new property claims, because the deadline expired in 2003.
The ombudsperson is a commissioner appointed by parliament responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The ombudsperson examines citizens’ complaints pertaining to the work of state bodies; local and regional self-government; and legal persons vested with public authority. The ombudsperson may issue recommendations to government agencies regarding human rights and religious freedom practices but does not have authority to enforce compliance with his or her recommendations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Ministry of Administration registered a newly established religious community called the Catholic Old Church, located on the island of Rab.
According to the Office of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the government budgeted 299.5 million kuna ($46.15 million) during the year for the Roman Catholic Church for salaries, pensions, and other purposes, compared with 288.2 million kuna ($44.41 million) in 2018. The government provided funding to other religious communities that had concluded agreements with the state, a portion of which was based on their size, in addition to funds provided to support religious education in public schools, and the operation of private religious schools. The government budgeted 22.0 million kuna ($3.39 million) to these groups, compared to 21.4 million kuna ($3.3 million) in 2018. Atheist groups criticized the government for allocating more to the Roman Catholic Church than to other groups.
Some minority religious and nonreligious groups, including atheist groups, continued to say the Roman Catholic Church continued to enjoy a special status (and greater financial support) in relation to other religious communities, in part because of its concordats with the government and in part because of its cultural and political influence as the majority religion.
SOC representatives said the community still had outstanding issues with the government regarding repossession of property, residential buildings, and land (including forests) that the government appropriated during the Yugoslav period.
Atheist, Jewish, and Serbian Orthodox organizations continued to report that although the law allows students to opt out of religious education, in practice most public primary schools did not offer any alternatives to Catholic catechism.
Atheist groups continued to complain that Roman Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. They said they believed this practice was inconsistent with the constitution, which states religious communities shall be separate from the state.
On August 14, media reported the High Misdemeanor Court fined a singer who used the Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (“For the Homeland – Ready”) while performing a popular nationalist song. The court ruled the “salute conveyed hatred toward people of different races, religions, and ethnicities,” and fined the singer 965 kuna ($150).
In May MEP Tomasic told the media outlet Novosti weekly, “I do not denounce the regular Ustashas who fought for Croatia but did not commit crimes.” Speaking of Ante Pavelic, leader of the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia (NDH) that committed genocide against Jews, Serbs, and Roma during WWII, she said, “He did not have to agree to racial laws, but fine. He did not have to have camps, but it must have been war then. He had to live in that time.” On June 5, the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned Tomasic’s statements. The center’s Director for Eastern European Affairs Dr. Efraim Zuroff called upon political leaders to officially reject Tomasic’s statements, “especially her attempt to whitewash the large-scale atrocities committed by the Ustasha and the NDH.” Members of opposition parties condemned her statements.
The ombudsperson’s 2018 report released in March said most complaints concerned religious discrimination regarding the organization of religious activities in public kindergartens and public primary schools, and complaints about discriminatory content in religious textbooks and Croatian language books for elementary school. Non-Catholic religious groups complained to the ombudsman about Catholic religious activities in schools and kindergartens. The Office of the Ombudsperson for Children said blessing students and common public prayers on the premises of an educational institution were inappropriate outside of catechism, and obliging all the pupils in schools or kindergartens to participate in religious activities could lead to discrimination against children who were nonbelievers or non-Catholics. Responding to complaints from non-Catholic groups about the religious content of Croatian language textbooks, at the end of 2018 parliament adopted amendments to the education legislation stipulating it is the duty of the public school system to be neutral and balanced.
The ombudsperson’s 2018 report stated members of minority religious communities encountered problems exercising their right to take time off for religious holidays and feasts that fell during the work week, and these issues continued during the year.
The ombudsperson’s 2018 report stated the office received complaints about displays of religious symbols in public spaces (e.g., a crucifix in the patient’s room at a gynecology clinic), where the complainants maintained that this was discrimination against persons who were not Catholic believers or were without religious beliefs. The ombudsperson’s office stated displays of religious symbols in public spaces continued to be an issue during the year.
In February parliament rejected a proposal to negotiate modifications to the four concordats between the Holy See and the government. During the year, secularist NGOs held seven rallies calling on the government to give less money to the Roman Catholic Church and terminate agreements with the Vatican guaranteeing the Church an important role in social affairs. Media reported in October the NGO Movement for Secular Croatia and the civil society organizations Protagora, LiberOs, and Atheists and Agnostics of Croatia, and two informal campaign groups, Voice of Reason – Movement for a Secular Croatia and Not a Believer, staged a protest rally in September attended by 500 people. The groups stated the Roman Catholic Church held a privileged position in relation to other religious communities, contrary to the constitution’s guarantee that all religious communities were equal before the law and separate from the state. Some protesters carried placards saying, “Constitution before Bible”, “Republic Strikes Back” and “Pope Francis: I Want a Poor Church.”
Media reported on April 12 that representatives from the Jewish, Serb, and Roma communities, as well as the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters and a delegation from the main opposition Social Democratic Party, held a commemoration ceremony at the Jasenovac Memorial Museum for victims killed by the WWII-era Ustasha regime at the Jasenovac concentration camp. On April 14, the government held its annual commemoration at the camp site. For the fourth year in a row, Jewish community representatives, along with the other groups, boycotted the government event. During the official commemoration Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called for a united commemoration in 2020 and condemned the Ustasha regime. On April 13, President Grabar-Kitarovic visited the Jasenovac memorial site on a personal visit. Members of Jewish groups, along with the other groups, said the boycott of the government commemoration was necessary to condemn what they said was its lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues. Local Jewish community representatives said the government made no significant progress on these issues during the year.
In January the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Director of Eastern European Affairs Zuroff issued a statement calling on authorities to ban a book entitled, “The Jasenovac Lie Revealed,” saying the book “denied that mass murders of Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists were frequently carried out in the Jasenovac concentration camp.” According to media, on January 17, a church in Zagreb hosted an event promoting the book.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) reported in September that IHRA Chair Ambassador Georges Santer called on the government to improve the exhibit at Jasenovic concentration camp to provide historical context so that visitors could understand the situation in the country and Europe during the first half of the 20th century as well as the role of perpetrators who committed the crimes. Santer offered IHRA’s expertise and support for the creation of a new exhibit. Minister of Culture Nina Obuljen Korzinek agreed a renewed and extended exhibit should be developed in cooperation with all victim groups and other stakeholders. Minister of Education Blazenka Divjak said the government was willing to increase funding to support at least 100 school visits to the memorial site in 2020.
On April 28, Vukovar Mayor Ivan Penava attended an Orthodox Easter Sunday Mass upon invitation from the local branch of the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS). Penava said he attended the Mass as a show of support to Vukovar’s Serbian Orthodox population. Local SDSS leader Srdan Kolar said he appreciated the mayor’s participation, adding, “As far as a return gesture is concerned, the moment we receive an invitation to come to events marking Catholic Christmas and Easter, we will be there.”
International Orthodox Christian News reported on March 18 that Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana Porfirije met with Prime Minister Plenkovic and expressed his desire to continue dialogue and partnership between the government and religious communities in the country. The metropolitan advocated a joint action program to solve issues important to members of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian national minority. The website of the Orthodox Church published photos of the meeting and said Prime Minister Plenkovic emphasized the government had been working towards strengthening the protection of rights of all national minorities, including through greater financial support for economic development and solving issues that had been postponed for years.
In January Prime Minister Plenkovic attended an Orthodox Christmas reception organized by the Serbian National Council, an association of members of the Serb minority in Croatia, and said, “Christmas is an opportunity to strengthen faith in peace, solidarity, and tolerance, as well as unity in the resolution of issues that are important to all our fellow citizens.”
A leader of the SOC in Eastern Slavonia said high-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church met with counterparts from the SOC in January to discuss cooperation and shared concerns such as demographic challenges in the country and outreach to the younger generation.
The Office of the President retained the position of special advisor for Holocaust issues, although the incumbent passed away in November.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
SOC representatives anecdotally reported increased incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity compared with 2018, including physical and verbal attacks. According to SOC representatives, however, it was unclear to what extent religious motivations played a part.
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 40 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Croatia, while 58 percent said it was rare; 84 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 95 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 90 percent with an atheist, 86 percent with a Jew, 82 percent with a Buddhist, and 81 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a loving relationship with an individual belonging to various groups, 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 82 percent if atheist, 75 percent if Jewish, 68 percent if Buddhist, and 64 percent if Muslim.
In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 28 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Croatia, and 54 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 37 percent; on the internet, 34 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 30 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 28 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 30 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 27 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 27 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 30 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 29 percent.
On January 25, the Holocaust Remembrance Project published a “Holocaust Revisionist Report” sponsored by Yale University, Grinnell College, and the European Union of Progressive Judaism. The report gave the country a “red card for revisionism” (the worst possible rating, meaning under the report’s methodology “tough work lies ahead”). The report pointed to the continued use of the wartime fascist Ustasha salute at soccer games, rallies, and protests, the relative lack of Holocaust commemoration sites, outstanding restitution issues, and what it said were President Grabar-Kitarovic’s contradictory statements on the Ustasha. The report said, “Croats continue to have difficulty coming to terms with [the country’s] wartime past under a Nazi collaborationist government. Although new historical research shows that most Croats opposed the fascist puppet regime and many saved Jews, the country’s troubled past, including five decades of post-war communist rule, continues to cast a heavy cloud.”
In May media reported political advertisements for a Serb party were repeatedly marked with symbols of pro-Nazi Ustasha regime and anti-Serb slogans in the run-up to European Union parliamentary elections. In Zagreb, an individual wrote, “Slaughter Serb children, kill the Serb” on an SDSS campaign billboard.
On January 24, the Roman Catholic Church unveiled a large banner on the Zagreb Cathedral to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The World Jewish Congress praised the commemoration, in which Cardinal Josip Bozanic, Archbishop of Zagreb, “declared it unacceptable to permit the re-emergence of anti-Semitism.” Observers from minority religious groups said this was a conspicuous and positive gesture, given complaints by minority groups that the Church has at times minimized its role in Croatia during the Holocaust.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy staff regularly discussed religious freedom issues, including the status and treatment of religious minorities, property restitution, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism, with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Culture; the ombudsperson; representatives of parliament; youth representing different religious groups, and other officials. The embassy emphasized to Ministry of Interior officials the importance of the government ensuring the religious rights of migrants and asylum seekers were respected.
In April the Ambassador, embassy staff, and the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with the minister of justice, the minister of culture, minister of education and science, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, the head of the Clinical Hospital, which during WWII saved a number of Jews from persecution, and leaders of Jewish organizations. Similar meetings took place in November. A senior embassy official attended commemorations for victims of the Holocaust, including the April 14 commemoration at Jasenovac, and discussed religious freedom issues with the members of the government and minority groups. U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to adopt amendments to existing legislation to provide for restitution of private and communal or religious property seized during and after WWII, including provisions that would unequivocally allow for foreign claims and that would reopen the deadline for potential new claims. Embassy engagement also focused on the restitution of Jewish communal properties such as cultural centers, synagogues, and cemeteries, as well as private property, and the creation of a claims process for victims.
In October the Ambassador hosted a lunch with youth representatives from different religious communities, including one atheist, to discuss challenges each community faced. He highlighted the importance of interfaith dialogue and promoting religious freedom and tolerance.
Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with NGOs such as Human Rights House, Documenta, Protagora, and Zagreb Pride, as well as with representatives from Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups. In cooperation with the Ministry of Science and Education, the embassy again funded Holocaust education training in the United States for high school teachers, sending four teachers during the year. These teachers later applied the training in the classroom. The Department of State, Association of Holocaust Organizations in New York, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum organized the annual program. The program continued to focus on new teaching methods and techniques, facilitated an exchange of ideas and experiences, and provided resources and materials for classroom instruction.
The embassy posted on social media platforms about a range of religious freedom issues, including support for Holocaust commemorations and the younger generation’s view of faith and religion in the country.
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.
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. While religious groups are not required to register with the government in order to conduct religious services, some religious groups reported that it is difficult to conduct business, hold bank accounts, or own property without being registered. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) did not act to resolve contested religious registration claims by different Jewish groups, which Jewish leaders said contributed to an ongoing rift in the community. The Ministry of Culture and Information assumed responsibility for establishing a memorial at the site of the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade; in October the ministry issued a draft law establishing the memorial and held public consultations on the proposed legislation. An off-duty gendarme officer in Belgrade reportedly threatened to kill a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door ministry, and there were incidents of local authorities obstructing Jehovah’s Witnesses from engaging in proselytizing.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported cases of verbal threats toward members engaged in missionary work, destruction of mobile literature carts, and inconsistent and sometimes inadequate responses to these incidents by police and prosecutors. Smaller groups, mainly Protestant churches, said they encountered public distrust and misunderstanding and said members of the public frequently branded their religious groups as “sects,” which has a very strong negative connotation in the Serbian language. Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores.
U.S. embassy officials urged the government to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and urged the Ministry of Justice to act on certification of contested elections within the Jewish community. U.S. government officials monitored progress on the draft law establishing a memorial at the WWII-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site, advocating that the government speed up progress on the process. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives from a wide range of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, cooperation with the government, interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, and property restitution. In March the Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Serbian Orthodox patriarch to highlight U.S. support for church cultural preservation efforts. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with various religious leaders to encourage renewed interfaith communication.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 85 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Sunni Muslim, and 1 percent Protestant. The remaining 6 percent includes Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, members of other religious groups, agnostics, atheists, and individuals without a declared religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population that identifies as Orthodox Christian are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), a category not specifically listed in the census. Adherents of the Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian, and other Orthodox Churches may be included in the numbers of “Orthodox Christians” or in the “other Christian” category that is part of the remaining 6 percent, depending on how they self-identify.
Catholics are predominantly ethnic Hungarians and Croats residing in Vojvodina Province. Muslims include Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims) in the southwest Sandzak region, ethnic Albanians in the south, and Roma located throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the freedom of belief and religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states that everyone shall have the freedom to worship and practice religion individually or with others, in private or in public, and no one shall be obliged to declare one’s religion. The constitution states the freedom to express one’s religion or beliefs may be restricted by law only as necessary to protect life or health, the morals of democratic society, freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution, or public safety and order, or to prevent incitement of religious, national, or racial hatred. The constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for religious groups, and calls for separation of religion and state. It states that churches and religious communities shall be free to organize their internal structure, perform religious rites in public, and establish and manage religious schools and social and charity institutions in accordance with the law. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination or incitement of religious hatred, calls upon the government to promote religious diversity and tolerance, and states religious refugees have a right to asylum, the procedures for which shall be established in law.
The law bans incitement of discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or group on religious grounds and carries penalties ranging from one to 10 years in prison, depending on the type of offense.
The law grants special treatment to seven religious groups the government defines as “traditional.” These are the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Islamic community, and Jewish community. The law considers Islam in general a traditional religion, and the Muslim community is divided between the Islamic Community of Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Belgrade, and the Islamic Community in Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Novi Pazar. Both Islamic communities are officially registered with the government and may conduct most normal business, such as receiving financial assistance from the government, receiving healthcare and pension benefits for clergy, maintaining tax-exempt status, holding bank accounts, owning property, and employing staff. Neither group, however, has absolute authority over matters regarding the entire Islamic community. “Church” is a term reserved for Christian religious groups, while the term “religious community” refers to non-Christian groups and to some Christian entities.
The seven traditional religious groups recognized by law are automatically registered in the Register of Churches and Religious Communities. In addition to these groups, the government grants traditional status, solely in Vojvodina Province, to the Diocese of Dacia Felix of the Romanian Orthodox Church, with its seat in Romania and administrative seat in Vrsac in Vojvodina.
The law also grants the seven traditional religious groups, but not other registered religious groups, the right to receive value-added tax refunds and to provide chaplain services to military personnel.
There are 25 “nontraditional” religious groups registered with the government: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Church in Serbia, Church of Christ’s Love, Spiritual Church of Christ, Union of Christian Baptist Churches in Serbia, Nazarene Christian Religious Community (associated with the Apostolic Christian Church [Nazarene]), Church of God in Serbia, Protestant Christian Community in Serbia, Church of Christ Brethren in Serbia, Free Belgrade Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zion Sacrament Church, Union of Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, Protestant Evangelical Church Spiritual Center, Evangelical Church of Christ, Slovak Union of Baptist Churches, Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia, Charismatic Community of Faith in Serbia, the Buddhist Religious Community Nichiren Daishonin, the LOGOS Christian Community in Serbia, Golgotha Church in Serbia, Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia, Biblical Center “Good News,” and First Roma Christian Church Leskovac. Several of these organizations are umbrella groups that oversee many individual churches, sometimes of slightly differing affiliations.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but it treats unregistered religious organizations as informal groups that do not receive any of the legal benefits registered religious groups receive. Only registered religious groups may build new places of worship, own property, apply for property restitution, or receive state funding for their activities. Registration is also required to open bank accounts and hire staff. Registered clerics of registered groups are entitled to government support for social and health insurance and a retirement plan. According to government sources, 17 registered groups use these benefits. The law also exempts registered groups from property and administrative taxes and from filing annual financial reports.
To obtain registration, a group must submit the following: the names, identity numbers, copies of notarized identity documents, and signatures of at least 100 citizen members; its statutes and a summary of its religious teachings, ceremonies, religious goals, and basic activities; and information on its sources of funding. The law prohibits registration if an applicant group’s name includes part of the name of an existing registered group. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains the Register of Churches and Religious Communities and responds to registration applications. If the MOJ rejects a registration application, the religious group may appeal the decision in court.
According to the constitution, the Constitutional Court may ban a religious community for activities infringing on the right to life or health, the rights of the child, the right to personal and family integrity, public safety, and order, or if it incites religious, national, or racial intolerance. It also states the Constitutional Court may ban an association that incites religious hatred.
The MOJ’s Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities manages all matters pertaining to the cooperation of the state with churches and religious communities. These include assistance to national minorities in protecting the religious traditions integral to their cultural and ethnic identity, cooperation between the state and SOC dioceses abroad, support for religious education, and support for and protection of the legal standing of churches and religious communities. The government’s independent Office for Human and Minority Rights, which addresses policy and monitors the status of minorities, also oversees some religious issues.
The law recognizes restitution claims for religious property confiscated in 1945 or later for registered religious groups only. The law permits individual claims for properties lost by Holocaust victims during WWII under the Holocaust-Era Property Law, but religious groups may not claim property confiscated prior to 1945. Registered religious groups that had property and endowments seized after WWII may apply for their restitution.
In accordance with the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-era assets, the law provides for the restitution of heirless and unclaimed Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, allowing the Jewish community to file restitution claims based on these seizures, while still permitting future claimants to come forward. The law defines “heirless property” as any property not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution. The Jewish community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust. The law also stipulates financial support from the state budget for the Jewish community of 950,000 euros ($1.07 million) per year for a 25-year period, which began with an initial payment in 2017. The law requires the appointment of a supervisory board with representatives from the country’s Jewish community, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and a government-appointed chairperson to oversee implementation of the restitution law’s provisions. The law established a February 28 deadline for filing claims.
The constitution states parents and legal guardians shall have the right to ensure the religious education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. The law provides for religious education in public schools. Representatives of the Office for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities have stated that religious education in public schools may be provided for any registered religious community, but no parents have requested education for any religion except the seven traditional groups. Students in primary and secondary schools must attend either religious or civic education class. Parents choose which option is appropriate for their child. The curriculum taught in the religion classes varies regionally, reflecting the number of adherents of a given religion in a specific community. Typically, five interested students is the minimum needed to offer instruction in a religion. In areas where individual schools do not meet the minimum number, the Ministry of Education attempts to combine students into regional classes for religious instruction.
The Commission for Religious Education approves religious education programs, textbooks, and other teaching materials and appoints religious education instructors from lists of qualified candidates supplied by each religious group. The commission is comprised of representatives from each traditional religious group, the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, and the Ministries of Education and of Science and Technological Development. Representatives of the Islamic Community in Serbia have not participated in the work of the commission. Instead, they have submitted their list of religious teachers directly to the education ministry for approval. According to the Islamic Community in Serbia, appointment of their religious teachers in schools throughout the Sandzak region has depended on local authorities rather than the education ministry. The Islamic Community of Serbia participates in the commission.
The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection based on religious beliefs. It states no person shall be obliged to perform military or any other service involving the use of weapons if this is inconsistent with his or her religion or beliefs, but a conscientious objector may be called upon to fulfill military duty not involving carrying weapons. By law, all men must register for military service when they turn 18, but there currently is no mandatory military service.
The constitution allows any court with legal jurisdiction to prevent the dissemination of information advocating religious hatred, discrimination, hostility, or violence.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police did not respond adequately to some incidents involving threats or assault against members of the group but took appropriate action in other cases.
On September 15, in Belgrade, an off-duty member of the gendarmerie reportedly threatened to kill a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door ministry. He then reportedly chased the group away with his car. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said the police questioned the assailant and sent the case to the public prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office did not provide an update to the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the case.
On October 10, in Kragujevac, a police officer cited and fined a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door missionary work, saying that they needed a permit. The Jehovah’s Witnesses noted the law does not require a permit for proselytizing.
On September 28, in Klenak, police officers ordered a group of Jehovah’s Witness to stop their door-to-door ministry and to leave the locality. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said the local chief of police showed little understanding of their legal rights.
The Ministry of Justice did not act to certify or reject an application to change the legal leadership of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia stemming from a contested election in July 2018, or an application to change legal leadership of the Jewish Community of Belgrade resulting from a contested March 2019 election. Ministry officials said delays in making decisions on the two applications were due to ongoing investigations of both elections and pending legal actions taken by opposing Jewish groups. Jewish leaders said government inaction on the paperwork contributed to tensions within the Jewish community.
The Federation of Jewish Communities said the government’s Agency for Restitution favored some Jewish groups over others in processing claims under the Holocaust-era Heirless and Unclaimed Property Law. Representatives of the agency stated it acted impartially and noted that it returned at least some property to most communities and continued to actively process claims. They also noted that some types of claims were easier to substantiate and complete, for example apartments and business property in Belgrade, where WWII-era records were good with regards to Jewish property confiscation. More rural Jewish communities tended to have a greater number of agricultural claims, which were more difficult to process. Additionally, the agency said that regions in the semiautonomous province of Vojvodina had generally poorer records of Jewish property confiscation during WWII. Most Jewish communities reported general satisfaction with their ability to file claims. The Restitution Agency reported 1,683 claims were filed by the February 28 deadline.
In accordance with the law on Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed property, the government continued to return heirless and unclaimed property taken during WWII to the Jewish community and to individuals. This law governs personal property taken from members of the Jewish community during the Holocaust, primarily consisting of nonreligious residential and business property and agricultural land. The government began processing claims under the law in 2016 and, as of December 31, 2018, reported it had returned a total of 59,712 hectares (147,552 acres) of land of which 27,349 hectares (67,581 acres) was agricultural land; 32,268 hectares (79,736 acres) was forests and forest land; and 188 hectares (464 acres) was construction land. Ownership rights to more than 91,887 square meters (989,000 square feet) of buildings were restored as well as one painting by artist Uros Predic.
The Christian Baptist Church of Belgrade reported that it was unable to open a bank account during the year after its bank closed its account in December 2018 for failure to provide registration-related documents. The church did not file for registration under the 2006 law, stating that the law was discriminatory, and that the law recognized legal status obtained under the previous legal framework; this meant that reregistration was not required, and any consequences of not reregistering were discriminatory.
In May the European Court of Human Rights rejected a 2013 complaint by the Christian Baptist Church and the Protestant Evangelical Church alleging the law violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it required the groups to apply for registration under the current law, despite having already been granted legal status under previous laws and previous governments.
Director of the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities Mileta Radojevic said the directorate focused its expenditures on traditional religious groups because they represented the vast majority of the population. He said the directorate provided financial support for books or printed materials, some reconstruction projects, and scholarships, but only for members of religious groups with a formal, university-level religious institution within the country. Prospective clergy from smaller denominations who relied on seminaries outside the country were ineligible for such scholarships.
The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches remained unregistered. The government continued to recognize only the SOC and continued its policy of deferring to the SOC for approval of any other Orthodox church body to operate in the country. The SOC continued not to recognize the autocephaly of the Macedonian or Montenegrin Orthodox Churches, and government officials stated that secular authorities should not try to resolve issues among individual Orthodox churches.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that while some state hospital workers “improved their attitudes” toward their religious beliefs, the state medical system as a whole remained the biggest impediment to their religious freedom, with many doctors unwilling to provide care without blood transfusions.
One Buddhist group, the Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia, said it successfully registered in May after the Ministry of Justice provided detailed guidance on correcting errors in previous registration applications. Community leaders also reported that local government officials in Indjija paved the road leading to the group’s new monastery.
Despite incidents involving members engaged in door-to-door outreach, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally satisfactory engagement with the government, in particular the Ministry of Justice, which helped the group navigate administrative issues.
Early in the year the Ministry of Culture and Information took over responsibility for establishing a memorial at the site of the WWII-era Staro Sajmiste concentration and extermination camp in Belgrade from a nongovernmental commission. In October the ministry issued a draft law that would protect the site and establish the memorial, and also held three public consultations on the draft legislation. Public comments received included comments on proposed names for the memorial, the definition of genocide, and the inclusion in the memorial of other camps in Belgrade and in Croatia.
The government continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later, returning 773 hectares (1,910 acres) of land, of which 722 hectares (1,784 acres) was agricultural land; 41 hectares (101 acres) of forests and forest land; 22 acres of construction land; and 985 square meters (10,600 square feet) of office space to churches and religious communities either the properties themselves or by substitution – including the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Romanian Orthodox Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Jewish Community and Seventh-day Adventist Church. The government estimated it had returned approximately 78 percent of land and 38 percent of buildings claimed by churches and religious communities.
The two Islamic communities said they had each submitted claims on the same set of properties. In explaining the lack of progress on other claims, the restitution agency said that, in general, the claims were poorly substantiated and required extra resources to process. Muslim leaders said the fact that neither of the two Islamic groups had authority over matters regarding the entire Muslim community created difficulty in coordinating property restitution cases and in selecting religious instructors for public school courses on religion.
The national television service, Radio Television of Serbia, continued to broadcast a daily 10-minute Religious Calendar program about major holidays celebrated by monotheistic religions.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported one physical assault and three incidents of threats against members engaged in field ministry.
On April 23, in Kragujevac, an unknown man approached two Jehovah’s Witnesses and attacked their property, overturning and damaging their mobile literature cart, and discarding the accompanying materials. The group stated it reported the incident to police, who did not follow up.
On February 9, in Belgrade, a man threatened to assault a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Police questioned the man and sent the case to the public prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office did not provide an update on the status of the case by year’s end.
On January 11, in Batajnica, an unknown driver taunted two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were preaching near a road. The two reported the car model and license plate number to police but said the police did not follow up.
On February 7, in Uzice, a man threatened two Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in public preaching and attacked their mobile literature cart. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the incident to the police, and a senior police official provided his personal phone number to facilitate communication in case the victims encountered the assailant again.
On November 4, in Novi Pazar, the Islamic Community in Serbia said it received a threatening letter with a bullet enclosed. The Community reported the letter to police but did not receive a substantive response, according to community representatives. The Islamic Community of Serbia also reported receiving threatening correspondence during the year.
Anti-Semitic works, including the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were available online, or for purchase from informal sellers or online bookshops. Right-wing groups maintained several websites and individuals hosted chat rooms that openly promoted anti-Semitic ideas and literature.
Many smaller or nontraditional religious groups reported some public bias and discrimination against their members, but without citing specific examples. Several Protestant groups noted their impression that the general public still mistrusted and misunderstood Protestantism, and that individuals sometimes referred to some Protestant denominations as “sects,” which has a strong negative connotation of “secrecy and mystifying rituals” in the Serbian language, according to anthropologist of religion Aleksandra Djuric Milovanovic. A representative of Christ Evangelical Church said use of the word sect seemed to be resurgent in media reports. The pastor at Lighthouse Evangelical Church also said that society looked down on his religious community as a sect.
Several smaller religious groups said that interfaith education and dialogue were needed among the broader religious community, not just among the seven traditional groups. Members of the Roman Catholic Church, First Baptist Church, Jewish community, and Muslim community attending an interfaith event all agreed that interfaith communication needed to be improved. Multiple smaller groups, including Christ Evangelical Church, the Anglican Church, and the Theravada Buddhist Community, reported good cooperation with local SOC officials.
The registered Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) Diocese of Dacia Felix operated in the Banat region of Vojvodina Province in an agreement with the SOC. In a May press release following the annual assembly of all SOC Bishops, SOC leaders criticized “the uncanonical intrusions of bishops and clergy of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the Dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Eastern Serbia.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to engage with government officials, local religious leaders, and international Jewish organizations to encourage resolution of the conflict within the Jewish community. The Ambassador on several occasions urged the Minister of Justice to make decisions on religious registration related to disputed elections within the Jewish Federation and the Belgrade Jewish Community. The embassy worked with Jewish organizations and the Israeli embassy to encourage progress on this issue.
The embassy continued to work with the Agency for Restitution and other members of government in the application of the Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property law.
Embassy officials continued to engage with the government on plans for a memorial at the World War II-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site. In January representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and embassy officials urged the Minister of Labor, Employment, Veteran, and Social Policy, who had legacy jurisdiction over the memorial process, and the Minister of Culture, who assumed control over the process, to move forward with a draft law to authorize the memorial complex. Embassy officials continued to meet with Ministry of Culture officials throughout the year to discuss the draft law and to urge further action to establish the memorial.
In March the Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch to highlight U.S. support for church cultural preservation efforts.
In November the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom engaged with a wide variety of religious leaders in Belgrade, including the Patriarch of the SOC, representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim and Jewish communities, and Baptist Church. During his visit, the Ambassador advocated for renewed and institutional interfaith discussions.
In April as part of an ongoing Ohio National Guard military-to-military partnership with the Serbian army, military chaplains from different faiths visited their Ohio counterparts to share best practices and deepen cooperation. The program featured an interfaith dialogue and highlighted the role of military chaplains working with all service members regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.
In May the embassy sponsored a visit by a U.S. gospel vocal group for a series of concerts and appearances around the country that highlighted religious diversity. During concerts for interfaith audiences and discussions with musicians from religious communities, the performers shared their personal experiences of growing up in faith communities.
In October the embassy posted a series of social media posts highlighting global threats to religious freedom, as well as America’s religious diversity, history of religious experimentation, and deep commitment to religious freedoms in honor of International Religious Freedom Day.
Embassy officials met with and discussed the status of religious freedom with members of the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Islamic Community in Serbia, Islamic Community of Serbia, Jewish community, Christian Baptist Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Anglican Church, the Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia, Faculty of Orthodox Theology, Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, Lighthouse Evangelical Church, Christ Evangelical Church, and the NGO Centar9.
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 continued a joint research project to establish the scope of Jewish heirless properties seized by the Nazis or their collaborators. Mufti Nedzad Grabus of the Islamic Community of Slovenia expressed concern about what he said were rising levels of anti-Islamic sentiment in the country and urged the government to dedicate more attention to combating hate speech. Muslims asked the government to provide pork-free meals in public institutions. Muslim groups reported difficulties in receiving services in hospitals, prisons, and the military.
Muslim groups reported obstacles in accessing halal food and spiritual care, and in circumcising their male children. They also reported anti-Muslim sentiment in news media and online. In March an advisor to former prime minister Bernard Brscic formed a new far-right anti-migrant party, the Homeland League. During a media interview, Brscic said Islam was a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion and that Muslims had the goal of destroying Western civilization. Construction of the country’s first mosque continued after delays due to funding shortages. Muslims held services elsewhere in the interim. The Serbian Orthodox community reported the construction of a church in Koper was delayed due to opposition from the local municipality that refused to approve the construction.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the Ministry of Culture (MOC) Office for Religious Communities, to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, and the status of circumcision of male children. In May the embassy cosponsored a roundtable on religious plurality, and an embassy representative delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy sponsored the participation of Secretary-General of the Islamic Community of Slovenia Nevzet Poric in an exchange program in the United States on advancing interfaith relations. In October the Ambassador hosted representatives of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox communities to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, hate speech, and relations with the government. In February the Charge d’Affaires hosted a lunch for representatives of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including circumcision of boys, legal restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals, and the Islamic Community’s project to open the country’s first mosque. The embassy amplified its engagement on religious freedom issues through social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). In 2003 the government ceased asking about religious affiliation in censuses, so accurate statistics about membership in religious groups are difficult to obtain. Estimates of the Catholic community’s size range from one million to 1.5 million persons. According to the secretary-general of the Islamic Community, the Muslim population remained at approximately 100,000. Estimates of the Serbian Orthodox Church community’s size range from 30,000 to 45,000 persons. The head of the Protestant community estimates its size at 10,000 persons. The Jewish community estimates its size at 300 persons. The Orthodox and Muslim communities include a large number of immigrants from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A number of refugees and immigrants, including foreign workers, are part of the Muslim community. The Buddhist community, made up mostly of ethnic Slovenians, is estimated to number 2,000 persons.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall have equal rights and provides for the separation of religion and state. The constitution affords equal human rights and fundamental freedoms to all individuals irrespective of their religion; it also prohibits incitement of religious discrimination and inflammation of religious hatred and intolerance. The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons.
The law states individuals have the right to freely select a religion; freedom of religious expression (or rejection of expression); to express – alone or in a group, privately or publicly – their religious beliefs freely in “church or other religious communities,” through education, religious ceremonies, or in other ways; and not to be forced to become a member or to remain a member of a religious group, nor to attend (or not attend) worship services or religious ceremonies. The law stipulates the right to refuse to comply with legal duties and requirements that contradict an individual’s religious beliefs, provided such refusals do not limit the rights and freedoms of other persons.
Registered religious groups are also eligible for rebates on value-added taxes and government cofinancing of social security contributions for their religious workers.
To register with the government, a religious group must submit an application to the MOC providing proof it has at least 10 adult members who are citizens or permanent residents; the name of the group, which must be clearly distinguishable from the names of other religious groups; the group’s address in the country; and a copy of its official seal to be used in legal transactions. It must pay an administrative tax of 22.60 euros ($25). The group must also provide the names of the group’s representatives in the country, a description of the foundations of the group’s religious beliefs, and a copy of its organizational act. If a group wishes to apply for government cosponsorship of social security for clergy members, it must show it has at least 1,000 members for every clergy member.
The government may refuse the registration of a religious group only if the group does not provide the required application materials in full or if the MOC determines the group is a “hate group” – an organization engaging in hate crimes as defined by the penal code.
By law, MOC’s Office for Religious Communities monitors and maintains records on registered religious communities and provides legal expertise and assistance to religious organizations. The MOC establishes and manages the procedures for registration, issues documents related to the legal status of registered communities, distributes funds allocated in the government’s budget for religious activities, organizes discussions and gatherings of religious communities to address religious freedom concerns, and provides information to religious groups on the legal provisions and regulations related to their activities.
In accordance with the law, citizens may apply for the return of property nationalized between 1945 and 1963. The government may provide monetary compensation to former owners who cannot receive restitution in kind; for example, it may authorize monetary compensation if government institutions are using the property for an official purpose or public service such as education or healthcare.
According to the constitution, parents have the right to provide their children with a religious upbringing in accordance with the parents’ beliefs. The government requires all public schools to include education on world religions in their curricula, with instruction provided by a school’s regular teachers. The government allows churches and religious groups to provide religious instruction in their faiths in public schools and preschools on a voluntary basis outside of school hours. The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools as part of the curriculum or during school hours but does not prescribe penalties for violations. Private schools may offer religious classes during or after school hours.
The law mandates Holocaust education in schools. This instruction focuses on the history of the Holocaust inside and outside the country. Schools use a booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Holocaust education curriculum to create awareness of the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe before World War II and of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The booklet emphasizes the responsibility of everyone to remember the victims of the Holocaust.
The constitution provides for an independent human rights ombudsman to investigate and report on alleged human rights violations by the government. The president nominates and the national assembly appoints the human rights ombudsman and allocates the office’s budget, but otherwise the ombudsman operates independently of the government. Individuals have the right to file complaints with the ombudsman to seek administrative relief regarding abuses of religious freedom committed by national or local authorities, but appellants must exhaust all regular and extraordinary legal remedies before turning to the ombudsman. The ombudsman’s office may forward these complaints to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which may then issue indictments, call for further investigation, or submit the claims directly to a court, whereupon the complaints become formal. The ombudsman also submits an annual human rights report to the national assembly and provides recommendations and expert advice to the government.
The Government Council for Dialogue on Religious Freedom under the auspices of the MOC Office for Religious Communities is responsible for promoting transparency and explaining national and European Union (EU) legislation pertinent to religious groups through workshops and other events and encouraging dialogue on issues of concern among the country’s religious communities. Its members include representatives of the minister of culture, director of the Office for Religious Communities, the Advocate of the Principle of Equality, and representatives of the Catholic Church, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovenia, Islamic Community of Slovenia, Serbian Orthodox Church, and smaller religious communities.
The law allows for circumcision, but a nonbinding opinion by the human rights ombudsman states that, based on the constitution and the law, “circumcision for nonmedical reasons is not permissible and constitutes unlawful interference with the child’s body, thereby violating his rights.” Some hospitals do not offer circumcision because of this opinion.
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter.
The penal code’s definition of hate crimes includes publicly provoking religious hatred and diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. Punishment for these offenses is imprisonment of up to two years, or, if the crime involves coercion or endangerment of security – defined as a serious threat to life and limb, desecration, or damage to property – imprisonment for up to five years. If officials abuse the power of their positions to commit these offenses, they may be subject to imprisonment of up to five years. Members of groups that engage in these activities in an organized and premeditated fashion – hate groups, according to the law – may also receive a punishment of up to five years in prison.
On hate speech, the law prohibits the incitement to hatred, violence, and intolerance based on nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, skin color, social status, political or other beliefs, sexual orientation, and disability in a way that could threaten or disrupt public order.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Samanadipa Forest Buddhist Hermitage applied to register as an official religious group. At year’s end, the registration process remained pending.
The WJRO and Ministry of Justice continued a joint research project to establish the scope of heirless properties in the country seized by the Nazis or their collaborators. The research teams planned to complete their study in 2020. Restitution efforts remained complicated by an earlier law on property nationalization claims, which generally excluded property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945.
According to a Muslim community leader, an earlier request to the government by the Muslim community to reserve special locations in cemeteries for graves for Muslim and allow gravestones to face Mecca had been delegated by the central government to local governments. This leader said he did not see this as a major problem and had not yet addressed it with the relevant local governments. The Muslim community requested the government make pork-free meals readily available in hospitals, schools, prisons, and other public institutions.
According to the Office for Religious Communities, an inability to provide spiritual care in the military, hospitals, and other public institutions remained a problem for some minority religious communities. While many hospitals had Catholic chapels, members of other faiths had fewer opportunities to attend collective religious services while hospitalized. The armed forces (SAF) employed full-time Catholic and Protestant clergy to provide religious services but no Muslim imams, Orthodox priests, or Jewish rabbis. While Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the SAF had access to their local religious communities while serving domestically, such opportunities were not always available during deployments or training abroad. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country, Reverend Aleksandar Obradovic, attributed the SAF’s lack of Orthodox clergy to low numbers of qualified Orthodox priests in the country, rather than to inadequate government support. The Orthodox community said it was preparing two candidates for service as chaplains in the SAF by 2023. Muslim community leaders said the Ministry of Defense had not employed an imam in the SAF, despite their requests to do so. The Jewish community did not have any rabbis in the country; a rabbi in Trieste, Italy, remained responsible for Slovenia and routinely visited the country during the year. Catholic officials said their request for the government to employ an ordained bishop in the SAF to oversee the organization of Catholic chaplains in the military remained pending.
The Islamic Community of Slovenia continued to provide certificates to companies producing meat from stunned animals, confirming the meat was halal. The Jewish community raised concerns about the law requiring slaughtering with stunning, stating this violated kosher laws, and imported kosher meat from neighboring countries. The government defended the law as necessary to comply with EU regulations to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals.
The Office for Religious Communities and leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities said continuing confusion regarding the legal status of circumcision resulted in many hospitals not offering the procedure. As a result, some Muslims and Jews continued to have the procedure performed in Austria. Muslim and Jewish leaders objected to the human rights ombudsman’s opinion that circumcision violated the rights of children, calling it religious discrimination.
In his annual Ramadan remarks in June, Mufti Grabus expressed concern with what he stated were rising levels of Islamophobia in the country. Grabus said that extremist and nationalist platforms in Europe were partly responsible, which was apparent in certain media outlets, on social media, and in some political platforms that often depicted Islam as a violent religion. Grabus also expressed concerns about hate speech targeting Muslims and urged the government to dedicate more attention to combating hate speech.
In a case involving Roma, in August the Supreme Court ruled that incidents involving threats, abusive language, or insult do not necessarily need to jeopardize public order and peace to be treated as crimes. Before this ruling, hate activity typically required violence to occur. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said the ruling set an important precedent for combating incitement to hatred, violence, and intolerance.
According to the Slovenian Press Agency, in April Office for Religious Communities Director Gregor Lesjak said there were practically no legal disputes regarding religious freedom, and that the European Court of Human Rights had never processed a case of violation of religious freedom in the country.
High-level government officials attended observances marking the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Government officials confirmed the country supported IHRA’s Working Definition of Antisemitism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Muslim groups said Muslims faced obstacles in obtaining access to halal food and spiritual care, and in circumcising their male children. In contrast to previous years, these groups reported Muslim workers did not have difficulties obtaining time off for Islamic holidays.
There were manifestations of anti-Islamic sentiment in the conventional media and on social media platforms. In March adviser to former prime minister Bernard Brscic formed a new far-right antimigrant party, the Homeland League. During an interview in May, Brscic said Islam was a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion, and Muslims had the goal of destroying Western civilization. The general state prosecutor was conducting an internal investigation to ascertain why a local prosecutor declined to prosecute Brscic for alleged Holocaust denial in 2017. This investigation was pending at year’s end. Muslim community leaders, government representatives, and NGO groups stated that anti-Islamic sentiment had declined from 2018 levels and that it seemed to be aimed more at migrants than Muslims as a whole.
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 33 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Slovenia, while 62 percent said it was rare; 81 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 93 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 88 percent said they would be with an atheist, 84 percent with a Jew, 82 percent with a Buddhist, and 82 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 91 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 81 percent if atheist, 72 percent if Jewish, 73 percent if Buddhist, and 68 percent if Muslim.
In January the Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 16 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism to be a problem in Slovenia, and 12 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 19 percent; on the internet, 19 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 17 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 15 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 14 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 14 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 15 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 15 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 16 percent.
Trieste-based Rabbi Ariel Haddad characterized Slovenia as a safe place for Jews and said Jewish-related events in the country attracted high-level attendance, a view not shared by other leaders, such as Vice Chair of the Jewish Community of Slovenia Igor Vojtic.
Construction of the country’s first mosque continued in Ljubljana. The Islamic community expected the mosque to open in 2020. In the interim, it rented places for worship, including large sports halls for major events.
The Orthodox community’s only church was also located in Ljubljana, and Orthodox representatives continued efforts to build churches in Koper and Celje. The Orthodox community reported the construction of the church in Koper was delayed due to opposition from the mayor, who had not put the issue to the city council for a vote since it was first raised in 2018. Representatives of the Orthodox community purchased land in the center of Koper in 2018 for the church but reported the mayor offered land outside of town instead. The Orthodox community rejected the proposal, because the offered location was too far from the city center. In the interim, they were holding services at a local Catholic church. Catholic churches around the country routinely granted access for local Orthodox communities to host events and religious ceremonies.
Representatives of the Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Protestant communities continued to report productive relations among members of different religious groups, including an active interfaith dialogue at workshops and conferences. They also reported good relations with the government in general but expressed a need for more dialogue with the government on issues related to religious freedom.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities. Issues discussed included the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, circumcision of male children, and interfaith dialogue.
In April the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, along with representatives from the WJRO, met with senior government officials and members of the local Jewish community to discuss the joint study on heirless properties. They also discussed possible government gestures toward the Jewish community, such as offering the community a government property that could serve as its headquarters and a venue for gatherings and ceremonies, as well as a provision of funds to support Holocaust survivors. In November the embassy supported another visit of WJRO representatives to meet with senior government officials to continue the dialogue on Holocaust restitution issues and the course of action to be taken following completion of the joint study.
In October the Ambassador hosted an event for representatives of the Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox communities to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including interfaith dialogue, hate speech, and relations with the government. In February the Charge d’Affaires hosted an event for representatives of the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss issues related to religious freedom, such as circumcision of boys, legal restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals, and the Islamic Community’s project to open the country’s first mosque.
The embassy amplified its engagement through social media posts about the embassy’s meetings with representatives of religious communities and the Secretary of State’s remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington in July.
In May the embassy cosponsored a roundtable on religious plurality in Murska Sobota in the northeastern part of the country at which an embassy representative delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.
The embassy sponsored the visit of Secretary-General of the Islamic Community of Slovenia Nevzet Poric to participate in an exchange program in the United States on advancing interfaith relations. On his return, Poric reported that the program would help his work to foster better relations among religious groups in the country.