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MACEDONIA: Official discrimination continues

Officials continue to put into practice the Macedonian Religion Law's hostility to some religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has found. Discrimination continues against the Serbian Orthodox Church and Bektashi Muslim community, and in favour of the two "state faith communities" - the Macedonian Orthodox Church and Islamic Community of Macedonia. Smaller religious communities' main problems are the continuing official obstacles against them acquiring, regaining, expanding and using places of worship. Urban plans are often used as excuses to deny or give inadequate planning permission to religious communities, one Protestant pastor commenting to Forum 18 that "this is an excuse, but what can we do?" Controversy continues over the state's promotion of what the Macedonian Helsinki Committee describes as the two "state faith communities". This particularly focuses on the use of state funds to build high-profile places of worship for these communities, and attempts to introduce compulsory school religious instruction despite a Constitutional Court ruling against this.

MACEDONIA: New Law fails to solve building problems

Macedonia's new Religion Law will not end the building problems faced by minority religious communities, Forum 18 News Service notes. Religious communities of all faiths state that the major problems in practising their faith involve buildings, such as long-running denials of permission to build, extend or establish legal ownership over places of worship. In addition, the authorities have also demolished "illegal" Serbian Orthodox places of worship. The Law may even encourage religious discrimination by allowing existing religious communities – particularly the state-favoured Macedonian Orthodox Church – to effectively veto the construction of places of worship of other faiths. Additional problems for smaller religious communities are the cumbersome way urban plans are drawn up, and a section of the new Law which may be used to bar worship services in some buildings, or conducted by some people.

MACEDONIA: New Religion Law perpetuates discrimination

Macedonia's new Religion Law – which comes into force on 1 May – is designed to prevent the Serbian Orthodox Church gaining legal status, church members have told Forum 18 News Service. It may also be used to discriminate against the Bektashi Muslim community. The Law names without defining three types of religious entities – a church, a religious community and a religious group. No official has been able to explain to Forum 18 what differences, if any, there may be between these entities. The Law also does not specify clear requirements for communities seeking legal status, or whether unregistered entities can have religious freedom. Amongst the information demanded for registration is the "Manner of expression of the religious affiliation and performance of the religious rites and rituals." A spokesperson told Forum 18 that the Human Rights Ombudsperson was not involved in drafting the Law, "even though a draft law should be sent to the Ombudsperson's office before it goes for voting."

MACEDONIA: Religious freedom survey, February 2008

In Macedonia, state discrimination in favour of one religious confession – the Macedonian Orthodox Church - is a dominant factor, Forum 18 News Service notes in its religious freedom survey analysis. Alongside this is active discrimination against other religious confessions, especially if officials see them as a threat or as "non-traditional". The main target for state officials is the Serbian Orthodox Church, but smaller confessions such as Baptists, Bektashi Muslims, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses are also discriminated against. The major problem faced by most confessions is their inability – due to inconsistent and discriminatory enforcement of the law and planning procedures – to build, expand or obtain buildings for worship. Unclear and discriminatory legal provisions continue in a new Religion Law, due to come into force in May 2008. The Macedonian authorities show few, if any, signs that they are willing to protect the religious freedom of all Macedonian citizens.

MACEDONIA: Will draft new Religion Law end discrimination?

Chief government religious affairs official Zvonko Mucunski has refused to provide religious communities with the latest text of the new draft Religion Law, religious minorities have complained to Forum 18 News Service. The big sticking point in the draft Law due to go to public discussion in March, is whether more than one denomination of any one faith can gain legal recognition. This is banned in the present Law and in the previous version of the draft new Law. "Both we and Brussels criticise this," Isa Rusi of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights told Forum 18. Imprisoned Archbishop Jovan, who heads the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia which has been denied legal status, insists the new Law must allow all faiths to register "not only when they result from differences between religions, but also from possible conflicts with leaderships of already recognised religious communities". Mucunski insisted to Forum 18 that the current draft Law "carefully" guarantees full religious freedom for all religious communities, "taking care of our specific circumstances".

MACEDONIA: Religious communities still face building problems

Baptists, Serbian Orthodox, Adventists, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses have all told Forum 18 News Service of problems they have faced from the authorities in obtaining permission for building projects in Macedonia. Some religious minorities however, such as Catholics and Jews, have not experienced any problems in obtaining building permission. Methodists are pursuing the alternative approach of reclaiming confiscated property. A particular problem facing the Serbian Orthodox is that, without state registration, they do not even have the right to apply for building permission. Other religious minorities do have the right to apply for permission, even if some – such as Baptists – have told Forum 18 that they doubt that it may ever be granted. Under Macedonia's discriminatory approach, the Serbian Orthodox Church has been told that it will "never" be registered. Building problems faced by some religious communities in the country are long-standing.

SERBIA: Religion Minister breaks his own law

Serbia's Religion Minister, Milan Radulovic, has broken the controversial Religion Law his ministry sponsored, Forum 18 News Service has found. Radulovic's Ministry has published Regulations which illegally increase the number of adult Serbian citizens required for a religious community to be registered, from the 75 the Religion Law specifies to 100. The Ministry has repeatedly refused to say why it did this. What legal rights registered and unregistered communities will have remains unclear, and a legal challenge to the Religion Law has been submitted to the Serbian Constitutional Court, based on contradictions between the Law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Some Evangelical churches are refusing to apply for registration, as they refuse to "voluntarily and peacefully agree with discrimination between the churches." "Justice can only be gained via a court process, or with the help of the international community," two Evangelical leaders have publicly declared.

MACEDONIA: Sentence reduction sees Serbian bishop freed

The 28 February reduction of the sentence imposed on the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Archbishop Jovan (Vranisskovski), saw him freed from prison in Idrizovo several days later. But it remains unclear how much freedom the Church – which faces strong pressure from the government and the rival Macedonian Orthodox Church – will have. Father David (Ninov) told Forum 18 News Service he hopes charges against other monks and nuns for "performing unauthorised activities" will now be dropped, but complained of the government's continuing refusal to grant the Church registration. Archbishop Jovan's lawyer Vasko Georgiev told Forum 18 he is optimistic that the proposed new religion law will explicitly guarantee freedom to hold worship services on private property "since this is the European standard". Serbian Orthodox, Protestants and others complain that under unwritten rules, no non-Macedonian Orthodox places of worship can currently be built.

MACEDONIA: Why can't new non-Orthodox churches or mosques be built?

No government official was prepared to explain to Forum 18 News Service why Macedonia's religious minorities are in practice unable to build new places of worship or extend existing ones. "The only permission we can get is to build an ordinary house where we can hold worship services," Stojan Petrovski of the Evangelical Alliance complained to Forum 18, noting that the same problems apply to all small religious communities. The Seventh-day Adventists reported that for three decades they have been denied permission to build a church in Negotino, while the Muslims complain of denial of permission to build mosques. Applications by an Evangelical Church in Skopje to extend its building have been rejected although surrounding buildings have been able to extend.

MACEDONIA: Trials without end for Serbian Orthodox?

Just days after being handed an extra two years in prison for "embezzlement" for holding church funds in a private bank account for two days three years ago - bringing his total prison term to four and a half years - the fourth trial for Archbishop Jovan, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, began in Veles on 29 September. "It is ridiculous that I am accused of embezzling the funds that I spent on the life and work of my diocese," Archbishop Jovan told Forum 18 News Service before his recent imprisonment. Eleven church members who attended a service he conducted in a private flat in January 2004 now face court summonses. Goran Pavlovski, spokesperson for the cabinet of ministers, refused to explain to Forum 18 why his government is so hostile to Macedonian parishes of the Serbian Orthodox Church and declined to say if Macedonian citizens are allowed to belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. It has called its followers to a week of fasting in response to the third sentence in a row against Archbishop Jovan.

MACEDONIA: Serbian bishop remains in prison as appeal fails

Despite appeals from politicians and Christian leaders around the world, on 16 September Macedonia's Supreme Court upheld the 18-month prison sentence on the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Archbishop Jovan. "The Macedonian state is doing everything to make him stay in prison as long as possible," his colleague Bishop Marko complained to Forum 18 News Service. "They are discriminating against him, that is obvious, and also against all of us in Macedonia, their own citizens." Archbishop Jovan has been denied visits in prison from his church colleagues and denied access to religious services. On 19 September he was taken to Veles as prosecutors try for the third time to convict him of embezzlement, a charge he denies. The Macedonian Helsinki Committee has condemned those who call for "intolerance and hatred" against Serbian Orthodox in the country.

SERBIA: "Heavy pressure" forces postponement of first Macedonian Orthodox church

Soon after news emerged that an ethnic Macedonian association had bought a plot of land in Novi Sad to build Serbia's first Macedonian Orthodox church, religion minister Milan Radulovic declared publicly that the state has a duty to prevent the building of the church. "Radulovic's statements deny us one of our most basic rights – the right to freedom of confession," Dragan Veljkovski, president of the Association of Macedonians in Vojvodina which bought the site, told Forum 18 News Service. He complained of "very heavy pressure" since the news became public which has led to the building plans being postponed. Macedonians contrast the Serbian government's strong defence of the persecuted Serbian Orthodox Church in neighbouring Macedonia with its moves to restrict non-Serbian Orthodox jurisdictions at home.

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