KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 4 April 2001
I. GEORGIA: MINORITIES CONCERNED OVER ORTHODOX
CONCORDAT. On 30 March the Georgian parliament adopted a
constitutional amendment establishing relations between the state and the
Orthodox Church on the basis of a concordat. Despite pledges by President
Eduard Shevardnadze that the religious liberty of non-Orthodox citizens will
not be harmed, some minority faiths remain concerned, representatives told
Keston News Service.
II. CROATIA: `HISTORICAL' FAITHS FAVOURED IN DRAFT
RELIGION LAW. Minority religious communities in Croatia have
reservations about the latest draft of the new Law on the Legal Status of
Religious Communities. Serbian Orthodox, Baptist and Adventist
representatives told Keston News Service that the bill allows the Catholic
Church an unfair place of primacy and gives `second-class status' to other
religious communities, as well as making a distinction between `historical'
religious communities and those established more recently.
I. GEORGIA: MINORITIES CONCERNED OVER ORTHODOX
by Aleksandr Shchipkov, Keston News Service
Some of Georgia's minority faiths have expressed their concerns about a
constitutional amendment adopted by parliament on 30 March establishing
relations between the state and the Orthodox Church on the basis of a
concordat. The parliamentary move, which was approved with 188 deputies
in favour and none against, will lead to the adoption of a concordat to govern
relations between the state and the Orthodox Church currently being drawn
up by a group of deputies and officials of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Despite
pledges by President Eduard Shevardnadze on 2 April in his weekly radio
interview that the constitutional amendment and the concordat would not
harm the religious liberty of non-Orthodox citizens, some other faiths remain
concerned, and plan to discuss their concerns at a forthcoming meeting with
the president (see KNS 3 April 2001).
Shevardnadze emphasised that `the rights of other religious organisations
and of atheists' would not be affected. `This law does not mean that any
religion will be oppressed or treated as inferior,' he declared. `This would
contradict the aspiration of our constitution and the principles on which the
formation of our state is based.' The president noted that `representatives' of
the Armenian Church, the Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam reacted to the
amendment of the Constitution `with understanding'.
The draft agreement regulates relations between the Church and the State
and covers areas including the army, prisons, hospitals, education, social
welfare, marriage, property relations and church finances.
Some of the provisions are: the Church fulfils its functions on the basis of
the norms of canon law within the framework of the agreement and
Georgian legislation; clergy are not subject to military conscription; clergy
have the right not to give evidence about facts that they are told
confidentially as spiritual counsellors or which become known to them; the
State recognises marriage registered by the church; the State will facilitate
the creation of a body of military chaplains in the army; the State will
facilitate the creation of a body of prison chaplains; programmes for the
teaching of Orthodox doctrine in schools and the appointment of teachers
proposed by the Church are to be confirmed by the State; the State and the
Church have the right to implement joint social welfare programmes; the
property of the Church is exempt from land tax and property tax; the
property of the Church and other property rights are guaranteed by law; the
State does not have the right to confiscate property from the Church; the
Church has the right to receive donations and also income from letting its
Three drafts of the Constitutional agreement have been published, though the
text will continue to be refined. The most recent draft has been sent for
advice to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is
expected to give its opinion in May as to whether the agreement corresponds
to international norms.
The consultations with the Council of Europe about the concordat are not
binding as officials believe the long-standing precedent of concluding
concordats between various states and the Catholic church is an indication of
the legitimacy of the practice. During the present papacy alone the Vatican
has concluded about 60 bilateral diplomatic treaties with European partners.
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Church, told Keston
on 2 April his church is concerned about the constitutional amendment. `I
am dubious about the idea, since the position with regard to other religious
bodies is not clear.' He said his church is also willing to enter into treaty
relations with the state, but only if treaties are concluded with all religious
In response to these decisions four of the country's major Christian churches
- the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the
Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Baptist Church - have joined together
to lobby for their interests. These churches are trying to achieve either the
adoption of a special law on religious associations (Georgia has no such law)
or the establishment of simple treaty relations (rather than constitutional
agreements) between the state and all religious organisations.
Levan Ramishvili of the Tbilisi-based NGO the Liberty Institute told Keston
by telephone on 2 April that many human rights activists regard the model of
a constitutional agreement as more appropriate, as the adoption of a special
law on freedom of conscience might repeat the Russian situation and lead to
a law with discriminatory provisions. `But we believe that a concordat
should be concluded with all religious associations regardless of their
numbers and how long they have been active in Georgia.' Ramishvili
proposes proceeding in stages: first an agreement with the Orthodox Church,
then with all other religious groups.
However, Orthodox representatives have told Keston they would resist any
constitutional agreements with any other faiths. `The Orthodox Church
would welcome agreements between the state and other faiths, but would not
welcome any constitutional agreements with other faiths,' Zurab
Khovrebadze, deputy head of the Patriarchate's press service, told Keston on
3 April. `Such agreements must be on a lower level.' He declared that as the
`traditional faith' of the Georgian people, the Orthodox Church had the right
to be regarded as above other faiths, claiming that Orthodox constitute the
`absolute majority' of the population.
Basil Mkalavishvili, a priest defrocked by the Patriarchate and now under
the jurisdiction of Greek Old Calendarists and who leads the Gldani
Orthodox diocese, strongly opposes the constitutional agreement, according
to his press secretary Irina Gogalishvili. `This constitutional agreement is
directed against us,' she told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 2 April.
`The Ecumenical Georgian Patriarchate is increasing its own rights and
trying to get back the lands which belonged to the Orthodox Church before
the revolution and also to gain possession of all the church valuables which
are today housed in museums. We are against the concordat. We want to
declare Orthodoxy as the state religion, call a church assembly and elect a
II. CROATIA: `HISTORICAL' FAITHS FAVOURED IN DRAFT
by Branko Bjelajac and Felix Corley, Keston News Service
Croatia's Serbian Orthodox Church, the Baptists and Adventists are among
minority religious communities with reservations about the latest draft of the
new Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities, arguing that the bill
allows the Catholic Church an unfair place of primacy and gives `second-
class status' to other religious communities. `We want all religious groups to
have equal rights,' Father Jovan, a representative of the Zagreb, Ljubljana
and Italy Metropolia of the Serbian Orthodox Church, told Keston News
Service. Baptist and Adventist representatives pointed to what they believe is
an unjustified distinction in the bill between `historical' religious
communities and those established more recently.
At the end of January the government launched a new round of wider
consultations with religious bodies over the bill. Planned to have its first
reading in parliament, the Sabor, this spring, the proposed law will replace
two earlier laws regulating religion, those of 1978 and 1988, both enacted
when Croatia was still a constituent republic of Socialist Yugoslavia.
Religious groups were given 45 days in March to submit their comments to
the government. Father Jovan, speaking from the diocesan office in the
Italian city of Trieste on 3 April, reported that the Orthodox Church held a
meeting at the Metropolia in Zagreb in March, at which it was decided that
its comments were ready to be submitted to the Holy Synod in Belgrade. The
Synod approved the comments on 31 March and, Father Jovan declared,
these would be forwarded to the government by the deadline later in April.
Although these comments have not yet been formally presented, Father
Jovan believes the government has a good idea already of Orthodox
concerns. Last November the Church submitted its comments on the original
Article 4 of the latest draft recognises the Roman Catholic Church, the
Serbian Orthodox Church, the Jewish communities, the Islamic community,
the Evangelical Church (Lutherans) and the Reformed Church as
`historically present churches [existing] in the territory of Croatia for more
than one hundred years'. The same article recognises any other religious
community in legal existence at the time the law is implemented as `existing
religious communities' and requires registration in the new register. After
that, newly-founded religious communities will have to register by
submitting a special application, together with a copy of their statute and
details of their structure and number of adherents or members. The draft
does not specify a minimum number of members required to achieve
registration. Article 16 states that this will not be required from existing
The draft includes a provision allowing religious communities to `conduct
religious services, provide religious education and minister to members of
the ministry of defence, armed forces and police'. Religious communities
will be allowed to use buildings of these three state agencies on religious
holidays, under regulations to be enacted by the defence and interior
The government is also planning to establish a committee for relations with
religious communities as a liaison body.
`In general, this law is not restrictive and follows the constitutional articles
on equality of all citizens in their religious practices,' Giorgio Grlj, president
of the Baptist Federation and member of the presidency of the Protestant
Evangelical Council, told Keston on 2 April from Zagreb. `I find
problematic the distinction between the "historical" and "non-historical"
religious communities, but we suspect this was done so that "particular"
historical communities will be allowed to sign separate concordats. Given
that the previous government signed such a concordat with the Vatican even
before this new law was enacted, we believe the new government will have
difficulties "adjusting" the law to the international treaties to which it is
Miroslav Lorencin, president of the Croatian Conference of the Adventist
Church, echoed Baptist concerns about the distinctions in the bill between
`historical' and `non-historical' religious groups. `We are broadly happy with
the draft bill, but we have a concern about this distinction,' Lorencin told
Keston from Zagreb on 4 April. While stressing that his Church is in a `good
situation', he said that `unfortunately' the state does not recognise the
Adventists as a `historical' Church despite presence in the country since
about 1900. `The earliest document attesting our presence is from 1908.'
In one of the earlier attempts to regulate religious life, the previous
government under the late president Franjo Tudjman planned to require a
religious group to have at least 10,000 adherents to gain state recognition, a
move designed to give more prominence to established, historical groups.
Minority religious groups and NGOs protested against this proposal.
Another disputed issue was a provision allowing police to close down a
religious community if its members were charged with anti-constitutional
activity (which was aimed at Serbian Orthodox laypeople and priests then
rebelling against the Croatian regime). This bill was never adopted.
However, prompted by the possibility of losing legal status because of their
small membership, a number of Protestant and Evangelical Free Churches
founded an umbrella organisation, the Protestant Evangelical Council, in an
attempt to approach the government as a united body representing several
tens of thousands of members. Since then, this body has represented many
minority Christian groups in frequent talks with the government.
Renewed discussion of a new religion bill was launched in April 2000, when
all Croatia's major faiths - including Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews
- took part in a meeting with the then Croatian vice-premier Goran Granic.
Religious groups were handed the government's draft of the bill and invited
to submit their comments. Granic told religious leaders he wished for
`discretion' in discussion of the bill, Father Jovan told Keston, with no news
on developments being passed to the media. `However, now we can speak
about it,' he added.
The new draft has already incorporated some observations noted in the first
round of consultations held last November, and it is believed it is close to the
official text due to be sent to parliament soon. (END)
Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.