KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 20 July 2001.
Reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in communist
and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

SERBIA: MINORITIES UNHAPPY OVER DRAFT RELIGIOUS
LAW. Some Serbian Protestants have expressed concern over aspects of
the draft of the new law on religious freedom presented by the Serbian
ministry of religion, accusing the state of introducing a state religion in a
secular state. �The state should be separate from the churches, and not
promote some and downgrade others,� Baptist Union president Dr
Alexander Birvis told Keston News Service. �This is becoming an issue
of discrimination.� The ministry is asking for more time and
understanding, claiming that the law will follow the best legal tradition of
democratic countries in Europe.

SERBIA: MINORITIES UNHAPPY OVER DRAFT RELIGIOUS
LAW

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service

Several of Serbia�s Protestant communities have already expressed
concern over some aspects of the draft of the new law on religious
freedom presented by the Serbian ministry of religion. Although the text
of the draft is not yet available, the ministry has already announced some
features of the proposed text. Protestant concerns have focused on their
future status and relations with the government. The Baptists and
Pentecostals held press conferences accusing the state of introducing a
state religion in a secular state, while the ministry is asking for more time
and understanding, claiming that the law will follow the best legal
tradition of democratic countries in Europe.

�The new commissars are wearing crosses instead of red stars,� Dr
Alexander Birvis, president of the Baptist Union of Yugoslavia, told a
press conference in Novi Sad on 18 July. �We are still under heavy
Byzantine influence, where the state declared what the people should
believe or not believe.� Birvis added that the state should not divide
religious communities into those called 'traditional' or 'historic' and
�others'.

Controversy was sparked by the preamble to the law, where several
religious communities were singled out and their 'historical and
traditional' position recognised. The preamble includes the Serbian
Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic and Jewish religious
communities, and the Lutheran (mostly Slovak) and Reformed (mostly
Hungarian) Churches. These religious communities are partners with the
government in the recently-announced religious education starting in
schools on 1 September. Children will be able to choose between
religious education (organised by individual faiths) and study of
democracy and ethics. Such religious education will also be governed by
the proposed new law.

�We are against religious education in schools,� Dr Birvis told Keston
News Service in Belgrade on 20 July, �because this should be done by
the churches for their members and their children. The state should be
separate from the churches, and not promote some and downgrade others.
This is becoming an issue of discrimination.� There are about 2,000
members of the Baptist churches in Serbia.

Contacted by Keston, one of the authors of the draft of the new law - a
law professor � declined any comment, preferring to wait until the next
round of editing, which will mostly cover the legal and technical side of
the draft.

�The law has been prepared following the instructions and experience of
several law experts from Germany and Greece,� Vojislav Milovanovic,
the Serbian minister of religion, told a press conference in Belgrade. 'It
represents a modern and democratic law affirming religious freedom in
the country.'

�We have been ignored by the ministry of religion,� complained
Aleksandar Mitrovic, bishop of the Protestant-Evangelical Church in
Vojvodina, the northern Serbian province, which has about 5,000
believers. �They did not invite us to any of the consultations,� he told
Keston in Belgrade on 20 July. �The draft was produced behind closed
doors. We think that allowing Orthodox priests in military barracks is a
violation of the separation between church and state. Our constitution
says that we are a secular state. Why is one Church now receiving the
right to regulate services for their believers, and others not?�

�One of the articles explicitly says there is no state religion,� Bojan
Pajtic, president of the law committee in the Serbian parliament, told the
Novi Sad daily Gradjanski list, adding that there is still some time before
the law is voted upon. 'This is only a draft and it is possible there will be
some changes before the parliamentary procedure, which I believe will
be before the end of the year... Probably we should add the Greek-
Catholics in the preamble.�

The Serbian parliament voted to annul the former law on the legal status
of religious communities in March 1993 because it 'belonged to the
Communist times'. However, no new law was adopted to replace it. For
the next two years, newly-founded religious communities were able to
register as 'citizen's associations', but in the wake of a Supreme Court
ruling in 1995, this option was abolished. For the last six years, new
religious communities have been unable to legally register with the
government.

The draft new law permits registration of all religious communities with
no fewer than 20 members and a statute that is not contrary to the laws
and not �destructive�.

The procedure for adoption of new laws requires several steps: public
debate, the government adoption of the draft, discussion in all relevant
committees of the Serbian parliament and then discussion at a plenary
session and voting. It is not expected that the law will be voted on earlier
than November. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.