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Forum18 (04/17/06) – Serbia ‘s National Assembly is today (17 April) due to begin discussion of a long-delayed religion bill to replace the communist-era religion law revoked by parliament in 1993. Belgrade professor Ljubisa Rajic, who has followed developments on the proposed law, is among those questioning the timing. “From yesterday Western Europe is on holiday, and next week will be Orthodox Easter here, so no one will be at work and they can vote through whatever they want,” he declared on 13 April at a Belgrade meeting observed by Forum 18 News Service. “Maybe I sound paranoid, but controversial laws like this were always voted on in the holiday season and I believe the authorities want to do the same now.”

The government approved the Draft Law on Churches and Religious Communities (the sixth in thirteen years) on 3 March and sent it to parliament, despite widespread opposition by human rights activists and religious communities. The Belgrade office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe , which has been involved in advising on successive drafts, declined to comment to Forum 18 on the draft sent to parliament, saying it had not yet had time to study the latest text.

Belgian law professor Louis-Leon Christians, who in early April prepared an analysis of the latest text for the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, expresses concern that the registration criteria should be spelled out in the law rather than being left to the minister’s interpretation and insists that the registration system must be non-discriminatory. He recommends that more safeguards be given to prevent arbitrary denial of registration, that guarantees be introduced to prevent unregistered religious communities being restricted in their rights and that the legal status of religious communities’ internal decisions be more precisely defined.

Given his concerns, Professor Christians asked parliament to delay discussion of the bill. The Venice Commission criticised an earlier version of the draft law (see F18News 16 May 2005

The Coalition for a Secular State , a grouping of 46 NGOs campaigning against the current draft, organised the public discussion of the bill in Belgrade on 13 April. “We have heard today religion minister Milan Radulovic saying he will not withdraw the draft law and saying specifically in which area of the law he will not accept any change,” Vidan Hadzi-Vidanovic of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights told the gathering. He said the coalition has given parliament 40 pages of proposed amendments.

Although most observers believe the latest draft is better than previous versions, many believe it is still not adequate. Vesna Rakic-Vodinovic, a law professor at Belgrade ‘s Union University , believes the latest draft should be scrapped. “This is legally speaking a dangerous text,” she told Forum 18 on 13 April. “It’s impossible to improve it through amendments and the best would be for the deputies to reject it.”

A number of religious communities and civil society activists object to the effective division of religious communities into five categories with differing status: the Serbian Orthodox Church, six other “traditional” religious communities, smaller religious communities which were recognised during the Communist period (dubbed “confessional communities”), newer religious communities seeking registration (dubbed “religious organisations”) and those without registration. Many secularists are worried that the draft law if adopted would allow “traditional” religious communities – particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church – to wield excessive influence. Some complain that theistic religious faith is protected while other beliefs are not.

Professor Rajic objects in particular to what he regards as the attempt to give the Serbian Orthodox Church a pre-eminent position. “Making Serbia a state of the Serbian people with the Serbian Orthodox Church as the main church is the clear political goal of this law,” he declared.

Professor Vladimir Ilic, director of the Centre for Development of Civil Society, who has been following the bill, has some reservations about the current text. “This draft law shows the tension between traditional churches and European standards,” he told Forum 18 on 4 April. “Our government is split between European standards and pressure from powerful groups at home and this sometimes leads to contradictory statements.”

Ilic said tension also arises over partnership between churches and what should be a secular state. “In reality the law aims for some churches and religious communities to be in greater partnership with the state than others,” he told Forum 18. “The problem is that partnerships cannot exclude positive discrimination towards some which will result in negative discrimination towards non-Orthodox, mainly Protestant or non-Christian religious communities.”…[Go To Full Story]