YUGOSLAVIA: Army Plans to Introduce Chaplaincy.

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service, 20 March 2001

The Yugoslav Army (VJ) is planning to introduce military chaplaincy in the near future, Keston News Service has learned. Large units (brigade level and above) will have Orthodox chaplains and smaller units will have a room for personal religious rites in every barracks. Religious services in the smaller units will be taken by local Orthodox priests. The VJ announced that it took into consideration the experience of other armies, mainly those of Greece, Romania and Republika Srpska. It has not yet been decided whether Roman Catholic priests and Muslim imams will be represented in the Army Chaplaincy, but soldiers belonging to these religious communities, as well as some smaller ones, will be allowed to celebrate their religious holidays and hold worship services.

The announcement follows recent meetings between Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Colonel-General Nebojsa Pavkovic, VJ Chief of Staff, and also after new promises been given by both Serbian and Federal Ministers for religion in the wake of the 5 October 2000 political changes in Yugoslavia. Religious services have been prohibited in the VJ for 60 years, and officers and civil servants forbidden to be believers, especially during the early years of Socialism. During 2000, when Vojislav Kostunica was coming to prominence, the Serbian Orthodox Church was supportive of his position (See KNS 6 October 2000). The Church started to regain a prominent position in Serbian society when members of the new government promised to return confiscated church land, and to introduce religious education in the Yugoslav educational system and religious services in the VJ (See KNS 30 October 2000)

  In a survey carried out by the VJ in 2000, 74.1 % of its 2,267 soldiers responded that they believe in God. The findings are presented in a new book ‘Armija i vera’ (The Army and Religion), launched in March 2001 in Belgrade. Among the main conclusions are that ‘religion has significant positive characteristics important for the boosting of army morale,’ and that ‘faith should be supported in the original, organisational and educational sense’ in the VJ.

  ‘For almost a year now the Office for Morale at the Headquarters of the VJ has been working on a new concept for the regulation of religious issues in the VJ,’ stated the 1 March 2001 ‘Pravoslavlje’ (Orthodoxy) - a biweekly Serbian Orthodox Church newspaper - fully supporting the VJ initiative. ‘The issue of religion in the army [&ldots;] is not a pure academic issue [&ldots;] but rather a daily life issue. ... The most important question has now been answered.’

  ‘We were happy with the status of our soldiers in the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia,’ stated Hamdija Jusufspahic, Belgrade mufti, for NIN, a Belgrade weekly, also supporting the concept. ‘Our soldiers had a separate kitchen and religious leaders who taught them our faith. We hope that our children will be able to enjoy such rights in order to preserve their religion and put into practice the teachings of their faith.’

  Representatives of minority religious groups and NGOs, however, are concerned about possible violation of religious freedom. ‘There is no need for a chaplain in the army,’ stated Dr. ZdravkoSordjan, secretary of the Yugoslav Association for Religious Freedom told Keston on 9 March 2001 in Belgrade. ‘I fully support the idea of introducing chaplains in hospitals and prisons, where people cannot leave their beds or cells, but soldiers and officers are relatively free to visit local churches in their places of service.’ As the majority of the soldiers are Orthodox, he said, ‘it will be difficult to preserve equal religious rights for all religious people serving in the VJ’.

‘I see no reason why the VJ should not organise religious services in its own buildings, just calling local priests to perform them,’ Dr Alexander Birvis, President of the Baptist Union of Yugoslavia told Keston on 12 March 2001 in Belgrade. ‘The army should have the last word in licensing priests and ministers, and in organising and carrying out this activity. I think that the main issue here is possible discrimination against soldiers of different religious convictions from the majority of the unit. Introducing army chaplains at this point is not wise.’

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic, spokesperson for the Helsinki Board for Human Rights in Serbia, speaking to Keston on 13 March in Belgrade, also expressed concern about the initiative: ‘We believe this is a political problem: the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, and the army are working together in trying to preserve a new morale, a new way of solving problems in our country.’ She was worried about the speed of the changes, the way they were being implemented and their effect on society. ‘The return of religious education in the school system, the return of land to the Serbian church, the imposition of Orthodox chaplains in the VJ, a new wave of racist skin-head attacks in Belgrade, and the rise of extreme nationalistic and religious groups in Serbia like ‘Obraz’ for instance, all speak of the weak foundations of the new social system. We need help in establishing a liberal segment of society that will be able to articulate its needs. If we maintain this radical conservative course, the damage done without a period of adjustment will be significant. Religion is a private question for every individual, and we think that many rights will be violated if this initiative is accepted.’

Colonel Dr Milorad Djordjevic of the VJ’s Office for Morale seems to have taken account of some possible objections. In the conclusion of the ‘Army and Religion’ book, he writes: ‘The introduction of religious services in the VJ takes for granted our categorical refusal of proselytism, from any side. The state should also ensure mutual tolerance among different confessions. We should speak more of tolerance.’ (END)