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 with regard to 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 provocation of violence and hostility on grounds of race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.
The constitution stipulates communities traditionally present in the country, including religious communities, shall have specific rights, including maintaining, developing, and preserving their religion; using their own language; establishing and managing their own private schools with financial assistance from the state; and having access to public media. Additional rights include establishing and using their own media, maintaining unhindered peaceful contacts with persons outside the country with whom they share a religious identity, and having equitable access to public employment. The constitution guarantees 20 of 120 seats in the national assembly to ethnic minority communities. It also stipulates the adoption, amendment, or repeal of all laws pertaining to religious freedom and cultural heritage requires approval by a majority of the parliamentarians representing minority communities, as well as by a majority of all parliamentarians.
The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.
The law does not require religious groups to register and 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, or perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law does not protect these buildings. SOC property is an exception. The Law on SPZs and Law on Supervised Independence acknowledges SOC property ownership and gives it stewardship over designated areas.
The law stipulates there is no official religion, but it lists five “traditional” religious communities: Muslim, Serbian Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Hebrew (Jewish), and evangelical Protestant. The law provides extra protections and benefits to these five groups, including reduced taxes.
The law provides safeguards for religious and cultural SPZs, determined based on religious and cultural significance, by prohibiting or restricting 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 the SPZ law. The IMC members include the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning (as cochair); the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport; the SOC; the Special Representative of the European Union (as cochair); and the 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 education institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.” This law is unenforceable in schools operated under Serbian government-run parallel structures, over which the Kosovo government has no control.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 23, a Pristina Basic Court panel acquitted Shefqet Krasniqi, the former head imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, of a February 2017 indictment by Kosovo’s Special Prosecutor (SPRK) on charges of religious hatred and tax evasion. The presiding judge cited contradictory statements and lack of evidence as reasons for the acquittal. On October 1, the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision, acquitting Krasniqi on all charges.
On May 18, the Pristina Appellate Court acquitted four imams, whom the Pristina Basic Court had charged in 2017 with committing terrorist acts or “inciting national, racial, religious, ethnic hatred,” citing lack of evidence.
Religious leaders continued to advocate adoption of a law drafted in 2015 that would provide a mechanism through which religious groups could gain legal status. The draft passed a first reading at the Assembly in 2017, but a series of political disputes unrelated to the law continued to delay final passage. The law would allow religious groups to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities. The Bektashi community also requested the law include language stating it is a distinct Islamic community constituting part of the historical heritage and cultural and social life of the country. Although representatives of many religious groups stated they had found alternative methods to conduct some of their affairs, most continued to report difficulties in registering property and vehicles, opening bank accounts, and paying taxes on employee salaries. All religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts not in their communities’ names, and the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said it continued to be taxed as a for-profit business.
According to BIK, some school officials continued to apply a mandatory “administrative instruction” (regulation) previously issued by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology that prohibits primary and secondary students from wearing religious garb on school property. According to BIK and other Muslim community leaders, public schools occasionally continued to send home students who insisted on wearing headscarves while attending classes; however, during the year, the Ombudsperson Institution did not receive any reports of a school barring students wearing religious garb, such as headscarves, from attending classes. Media reported a professor at the University of Pristina had intimidated female students wearing head coverings, compelling them to leave class. Students reported the occurrences to the University’s Ethics Council, which had not met to consider the issue by year’s end.
Religious groups said municipal governments failed to treat religious organizations equally on property issues. Although the law specifies municipalities are responsible for the upkeep of cemeteries, in practice, some municipalities allowed religious groups to take de facto possession of public cemeteries. According to both BIK and KPEC, authorities sometimes allowed or compelled local BIK imams to oversee day-to-day cemetery operations. While non-Muslim religious groups reported generally strong relationships with imams at cemeteries around the country, KPEC representatives stated local imams and other BIK authorities occasionally charged them for services even when they provided their own ministers. Pristina’s Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities continued to use separate public cemeteries.
On June 18 and 19, as part of an annual event, representatives of the Jewish community and a local public utility company cleaned and repaired Pristina’s Jewish cemeteries. Members of the Jewish community said they lacked the resources to maintain their cemeteries and local authorities did not maintain these public sites as required by law. According to Jewish community representatives, local governments did not maintain Jewish cemeteries outside of Pristina, including in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, Lipjan/Lipljan, Kamenice/Kamenica, Prizren, Mitrovice/Mitrovica, and Gjilan/Gnjilane.
The SOC and international organizations said Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision confirming the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that the municipality should return more than 24 hectares (59 acres) of land to the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery. Mayor of Decan/Decani Bashkim Ramosaj continued throughout the year to refer to the decision as unacceptable. Government authorities did not hold him or other municipal officials to account for failing to implement the Constitutional Court decision. NATO Kosovo Force, also known as KFOR, troops continued to provide security at the monastery.
Decan/Decani Municipality moved forward with plans to construct a road through the SPZ near Visoki Decani Monastery. According to EU and OSCE legal opinions issued during the year, Kosovo law forbids the construction of a transit road through an SPZ. The Prime Minister’s Office disputed this legal interpretation. In 2014 the IMC decided the planned road would violate the law. The IMC reaffirmed the road’s illegality at an April meeting.
BIK leadership reported the group continued to advocate unsuccessfully for the reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovice/Mitrovica North, which Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999.
Preparatory work began during the year to connect the public utility company supply network to the construction site for a new “grand mosque” in Pristina. Construction was set to begin in 2019, but was subject to municipal approval.
As of year’s end, Pristina Municipality had not allocated a plot of land, approved in a 2016 municipal decision, for the Jewish community to construct a synagogue. Jewish community leaders said this was due to administrative delays and expected the municipality to allocate the land in 2019. The Jewish community in Prizren obtained approval from Prizren Municipality in 2016 to renovate a building for use as a museum and cultural center. The Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports contributed 5,000 euro ($5,700) to the project during the year, and the Jewish community expected construction to begin in 2019.
According to the SOC and international organizations, there was no progress during the year to resolve the government’s 2016 denial of a construction permit requested by the SOC for the reconstruction of St. Nicholas Church in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren. In its denial of the permit, the Ministry of Culture stated the SOC was not listed as the land’s legal owner in government records. The SOC said that because the government had denied the permit after the legal deadline expired, the permit was issued by default. The SOC stated the government was violating the law and the Ahtisaari Plan, which gives the SOC full discretion to manage its historic sites. Responding to separate Ministry of Culture concerns, an OSCE-funded expert examined the site to determine whether a pre-existing archeological site was present; however, it had not published its findings by year’s end.
The Municipality of Pristina’s appeal of the Basic Court’s 2015 ruling that the Catholic Church owned property adjacent to the Mother Teresa Cathedral remained pending at year’s end. 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, overturning the Pristina municipality’s land claim.
The multiethnic police unit for specialized protection of cultural and religious heritage sites, led by a Kosovo-Serb police commander, continued to provide 24-hour, countrywide security to 24 SPZs. For the first time since the country’s 2008 independence, there were no incidents during the year at these sites. According to police reports and the SOC, theft and vandalism continued at SOC sites outside SPZs, where police did not provide special protection. The Ministry of Culture said it requested increased support from local governments to protect religious heritage sites.
According to KPEC, Kosovo Customs continued to ask KPEC to pay a fine it levied in late 2017 for the misuse of duty-free imports for religious organizations, stating KPEC’s sale for profit of imported used clothing violated the Customs Code. An OSCE legal opinion noted contradictions in Kosovo law surrounding the sale of goods for charitable purposes. KPEC reported successfully clearing one shipment of goods for sale in August without paying the duty, though the legal interpretation remained unclear at year’s end.
According to municipal officials and NGOs, the central government continued to provide some funding to Islamic education in BIK madrassahs in Pristina, Prizren, and Gjilan/Gnjilane. Some members of other religious groups and secular representatives believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.
According to the Ministry of Education, Ethnic Serbs, Gorani, Croatians, and some Roma continued to attend Serbian-language public schools operating under Serbian government parallel structures over which the Kosovo government had no control. Most ethnic Serbs elected to enroll in Serbian Orthodox religious classes instead of civic education. The Serbian government funded the salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors. The Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers and staff in Serbian-language schools.
The Kosovo Islamic Community (BIK) continued to report social and employment discrimination against devout Muslims, particularly in the public sector.
The Water Regulatory Agency (WRA) continued to waive water utility fees for religious buildings belonging to the five “traditional” religious communities, in accordance with the law. The Commission for Agriculture stated it started the early stages of reviewing the bill on regulating water services in October, stating the 2006 law on religious freedom did not provide for the exemption. Based on the proposed draft amendments, all religious communities would be required to pay water utility fees. Religious leaders said they opposed the proposed amendments, but the WRA said it was necessary to prevent possible misuse of utilities. At year’s end, the water utility fee waivers continued.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stopped holding its annual International Interfaith Conference following the 2017 departure of the official in charge. The Jewish community said religious leaders found the decision disappointing; however, they continued to meet regularly amongst themselves.