EU Accession and Serbia’s Discriminatory Religion Policy
Ellen Harvey Monday, 24 January 2011
In December 2009, President Boris Tadić submitted Serbia's European Union (EU) membership application to the Swedish Prime Minister—initiating what Serbia hopes to be the fastest accession by a new member state. Pro-EU Serbians had more to celebrate only six months later when, due to a positive report from the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the Dutch lifted their veto preventing the ratification of a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia. The ratification of the SAA will "provide a legal framework for the relations between the EU and Serbia" pending accession.
Serbia's main obstacle to ratification of the SAA was its inability to deliver Goran Hadžic or Ratko Mladić to The Hague. (The Dutch veto was prompted by Mladic's central role in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, a town which had been under the protection of Dutch troops during the war.) With the Dutch veto lifted, this will no longer be a central issue. But does this mean Serbia will attain the record for the fastest EU accession? According to Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), candidate countries have to respect principles laid out in the TEU and its associated Copenhagen criteria, which require stability of institutions that guarantee human rights. The Serbian government's current attitude toward human rights, particularly religious freedom, consistently violates and disregards the principles of the European Union and the Copenhagen criteria. Its policy persists despite regular reports from the EU, UN, and US highlighting restrictive practices.
Serbia's refusal to alter a discriminatory law on religion after repeated and direct recommendations reveals a need not just for changes in the law as it is written on paper, but a transformation of the nationalistic worldview framing the country's highly discriminatory religious law.
European Union Standards
Religious freedom may not be the first thing the EU considers prior to accession, but European Union membership criteria explicitly state EU human rights standards. The Treaty on European Union (TEU) says candidate countries must respect the "fundamental rights" guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Convention, signed in 1950, states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Serbia must meet these expectations to be considered for membership.
The more recent European Parliament Council Commission's Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (1997) strengthens the EU's commitment to human rights by emphasizing the importance of the "individual at the heart of its activities." It repeats the EU's intention to respect all rights to freedom of religion and expression, and states that "The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity."
Serbian Policy on Religion
Serbia's policy on religion has consistently denied Serbian religious groups many of the rights established by the EU charters. The religion law was first introduced in 2004, and religious groups and human rights activists immediately expressed concern. Despite the outcry, the law passed in 2006 virtually unaltered.
Opinion on religion in Serbia generally intertwines belief with nationality (i.e. Croatians and Hungarians are affiliated with Catholicism, Serbians with Serbian Orthodoxy, Bosniaks and Turks with Islam, etc.). The 2006 Religion Law recognizes seven traditional religious groups: the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Islamic community, and Jewish community. All other communities, even those who registered with the government several years prior to 2006, must register. According to the registration process, each community must submit the name and identification number for each of its members, and the group must contain at least 0.001 percent of the population (at least 100 members).
The law clearly discriminates between what it determines as traditional and non-traditional religious beliefs. Former religion minister Milan Radulovic openly admitted the law's intentions, saying, "Those who are not monotheistic religions cannot be registered" and shortly after adding, "[It is] important to protect Serbia's multi-confessional society from random interpretations of religious freedom." In 2004 Pastor Djorjevic from the Baptist Church noted that the list of seven "traditional" churches is not only religiously exclusive, but culturally exclusive; Djorjevic said the law does not "recognize the existence of multi-ethnic religious communities like Baptists, Pentecostals, and others." Both political authorities and religious leaders recognize how the mainstream connection of religion with nationality impacted the religion law's parameters.
Discrimination in Action
The effects of the 2006 Religion Law include difficulties with registration, property rights, and tax exemptions. The law particularly impacts "non-traditional" communities. The government persistently employs various stalling tactics to keep minority, multi-ethnic religious groups from registering. If a group is not registered, they are denied exemption from Value Added Tax; state financial support for salaries, phone bills, etc.; and building and publishing rights, among other privileges.
From the beginning, one way the Ministry of Religion has enforced the 2006 law is by encouraging "non-traditional" multi-ethnic religious groups to register as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Such associations are defined as "voluntary, non-governmental, non-profit organization, founded upon the freedom of association of several natural or legal entities." There is no mention of belief or religious mission. Foreign (especially polytheistic) groups such as the Hare Krishna have bounced back and forth between the Ministry of Religion and the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self Government; neither ministry is willing to register them. Newer, smaller Protestant churches, such as the International Christian Fellowship (ICF), have registered as an NGO for simplicity's sake. The legal representative of ICF, Dusan Kostic, explains that it makes more sense for them to register as an NGO. The Fellowship does not have a specific building or permanent employees (due to the fluid attendance inherent in an international church). However, Samuil Petrovski, Vice President of the Evangelical Alliance of Serbia, argues that registering as an NGO limits the Fellowship's rights as a religiously-based ministry and hampers potential support for their projects and activities.
The Religion Law's impact extends beyond newer religious groups. The lack of property rights in a country still struggling to recover from Communism is of particular concern for long-standing religious communities within Serbia; the Religion Law does not address these communities' rights to land that historically belonged to them. This has especially affected the Jewish and Islamic communities.
One particularly frustrating aspect of the law, Article 19, states that the name of the community cannot include any part of the name of an existing registered group. This article refuses registration to any group whose name is already claimed by a previously registered group (i.e. no two churches can both contain the word ‘Orthodox'). Some larger communities with more political favor, such as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, are recognized by the government and operate freely even though they are not registered. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC), however, continues to be denied registration despite a Supreme Court ruling that its rejection be reconsidered.
Many leaders of non-traditional religious communities have resigned themselves to the political realities that maintain Serbia's official attitude towards them. They are quick to point out that recent changes to the country's Associations Law have essentially addressed the issue by providing them an alternative way to register and gain legal status which does not involve the Ministry of Religion. However, such stalling tactics employed by the Government of Serbia only perpetuate the historical assumption that attaches national identity to religious belief and allows the government to avoid recognizing these communities, who, it believes, would threaten Serbian society from "random interpretations of religious freedom." As long as non-traditional religious communities are viewed as a political or social threat, their freedoms will not be secured.
In 2008, Radulovic asserted, "religious experiments cannot be part of religious structure ... I believe that some of these groups might become part of the structure in 450-500 years when they pass the historical test." In the four years since the Religion Law was implemented, the EU noted that a significant number of religious organizations remain unregistered in the country. While the Serbian government may be willing to wait 500 years, applying such an historical test to religious groups is not consistent with the standards established for EU accession, and the EU is opening its arms to Serbia now. Since the Religion Law's proposal in 2004, the international community has urged Serbia to reconsider its stance toward "non-traditional" faiths, but Serbia has been deaf to these recommendations. As Serbia moves toward EU accession, it needs to do more than re-write the law on paper; it needs to adjust the cultural and political attitudes that inhibit true religious freedom for its people.
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