KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 14 May 2001

YUGOSLAVIA: ROMANI EVANGELICALS ORDERED TO PULL
DOWN TENT CHURCH. Despite pledges by municipal leaders in the
Serbian city of Leskovac 290 kilometres (180 miles) south of Belgrade to
respect the rights of a Romani (Gypsy) Evangelical Fellowship, the
Communal Inspectorate has ordered the removal by 18 May of a large tent
erected on church-owned land in a predominantly Romani suburb. The head
of the city planning office told Keston News Service that it will not issue a
permit to legalise the church, a decision one of the church´┐Żs pastors attributes
to Serbian nationalism and religious differences.

YUGOSLAVIA: ROMANI EVANGELICALS ORDERED TO PULL
DOWN TENT CHURCH

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service

Despite pledges by municipal leaders in the Serbian city of Leskovac 290
kilometres (180 miles) south of Belgrade to respect the rights of a Romani
(Gypsy) Evangelical Fellowship, the Communal Inspectorate has ordered the
removal by 18 May of a large tent erected on church-owned land in a
predominantly Romani suburb. The order - issued on 10 May - is the second
within a month, though this time any appeal by the church to a higher body
cannot prevent the tent's removal. The local Department for Construction
and Communal Works has been seeking to remove the tent for months and
the head of the city planning office told Keston News Service that it will not
issue a permit to legalise the church.

The city's Evangelical Church - of which the Romani Fellowship, together
with the Serbian Fellowship, is a part - bought land in the Slavko Zlatanovic
settlement on the city outskirts last October. In March, a Romani church
from France sent the tent, which could hold 1,000 people, to accommodate
the ever-growing number of people coming on Sundays. The tent was
erected at the end of March.

`When we bought the land we hoped our troubles would be at an end.
Having 1,000 attending a building in the city centre that can hold only 300
forced us to organise three services every Sunday, with a constant stream of
people arriving or leaving,' Selim Alijevic, pastor of the Romani Fellowship,
told Keston by telephone from Leskovac on 4 May. `We believed city
officials would welcome our plans to "free" the centre by moving our
church, but we were wrong.' He attributed the senior planning official's
refusal to legalise the tent partly to Serbian nationalism and partly to
religious differences. `She believes she is helping the Serbian Orthodox
Church.'

About 100 Serbs living close to the tent signed a petition to the municipality
calling for its removal. `Communal inspectors appeared in our tent giving us
three days to pull it down,' Alijevic complained. `We objected to the
Department of Construction and Communal Works but they rejected our
complaint.' The department told them the church's land is officially a `water
supply area' where building is not permitted. `This would be correct were
there not 29 solidly-built houses in the same area and many other support
buildings and no-one is tearing them down, regulations or not.'

A Romani delegation, including the church leaders, went to the Planning
Department in early April to discuss this issue with its head, Smilja
Pavlovic. `She told us that no other religion is allowed here, and we heard
that she said we should not have a church in the city,' Alijevic reported.
`Then we went to the mayor, Dragoljub Zivkovic, who was friendly and
assured us a solution would be found. A city official promised we would
receive permission for even two churches if needed, but no solution came.'

`This is completely inaccurate information,' Pavlovic told Keston from
Leskovac on 7 May. `I have no personal interest to either support or do
anything against this sect.' She claimed that under the city plan no building
in the settlement was legal. `Also, there is no religious or sacral building
planned.' However, she reported that a special regulation is now in force to
legalise some buildings. `At the moment, we are working hard to legalise the
local Serbian Orthodox church, our church, and this has already taken us two
years. It is not true that we look at who is who and then make decisions. We
implement decisions fairly. You should not take into consideration rumours,
but the law. There will be no permit for the Romani sect building.'

Although the municipality allowed the church to hold Easter services,
Miodrag Stankovic, senior pastor of the Evangelical church, remains
distrustful. `After long negotiations, we conclude that despite fine words
from local politicians, officials in the municipal administration hate us,' he
told Keston. `Since they cannot harm us otherwise, they are using an
obsolete regulation - that no-one else observes - to prevent us having a
Romani church. The Romani people feel embarrassed and hurt, as they feel
this church belongs to the whole Romani community.'

Stankovic reported that 1,700 of some 8,000 local Romanies signed a
petition to the municipality calling for it to allow the tent to be used for
services. `The city tolerates our Serbian fellowship, but they are trying to
prevent the Romani fellowship from developing.' (END)