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Religious Trends in Southeastern Europe

Felix Corley

The Favoring of “Traditional Faiths”

With the surge of nationalism amid the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, religious freedom in southeastern Europe has become even more hostage to the desires of governments and ruling elites to support what they regard as “traditional” faiths. Croatian authorities favor the Catholic Church, while Orthodox-majority Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania favor their national Orthodox churches and restrict the rights of minority faiths; Bosnia remains divided into areas largely dominated by one faith—Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, or Catholic.

The end of fighting in Bosnia brought about by the 1995 Dayton Agreement led to renewed attempts by governments across the region to consolidate their societies around national faiths. New religion laws enshrined differential treatment for favored faiths in Bulgaria in 2002, Kosovo in 2006, Serbia in 2006, and Romania in 2007. Many countries retain openly partisan and secretive government religious affairs offices to oversee implementation of these laws.

Although these laws often replaced harsh Communist-era religion laws and thus formally abolished Communist bans on a wide range of religious activities, they are deficient in their support of religious freedom. Many are based on a hierarchy of rights, with the dominant faith holding the greatest rights, other “traditional” faiths—usually an undefined concept—having lesser rights, and all other faiths left out in the cold.

Legal Restrictions on Minority Faiths

Religion laws enacted since 2000 have made life difficult for minority faiths. Macedonia’s 1997 law recognized five faiths—Methodists were the only Protestant denomination recognized, largely because the then president, Boris Trajkovski, was Methodist. Serbia’s 2006 religion law recognizes seven “traditional” denominations, as the government sees them—all of them Christian except for Islam and Judaism—while among Christians, only three Protestant denominations are recognized (two Lutheran and one Reformed, all representing ethnic minorities), not Baptists, Nazarenes, Adventists, or others. Thus, the only recognized faith for ethnic Serbs is the Orthodox Church. Kosovo’s 2006 law recognized ”traditional” faiths, though the region’s international overseers required it to specify Muslims, Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Catholics, and Evangelical churches.

Romania’s new law recognized 18 denominations, but with few rights for smaller faiths, who would need about 22,000 members and 12 years of legally recognized existence to even apply for top-ranking status. Indeed, Romania is merely echoing the position in Slovakia, where, in 2007, the law was tightened even further to require not merely 20,000 adults, but 20,000 adult members to sign an application for a denomination to gain legal status. Those who cannot gather such numbers cannot gain legal recognition as a religion, although some may have a legal status as nongovernmental organizations. Even Slovenia, the most westward-looking of the former Yugoslav republics, barred legal recognition of all new faiths between 1999 and 2003, a restriction fiercely opposed by the Tibetan Buddhist community, Hindus, and a number of small Protestant churches.

Restrictions on “Traditional Faiths” in Minority Settings

Ironically, some of the major victims of these restrictions have been “traditional” faiths, especially in countries with minority Orthodox groups. Under pressure from the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian government has restricted the rights of the Romanian patriarchate even though it is an ancient Orthodox patriarchate that has mutual recognition with the Serbian Orthodox. Serbia has also restricted the newer Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox churches, which are not widely recognized in the rest of the Orthodox world. In contrast, Macedonia recognizes the Macedonian Church while seeking to crush the local branch of the Serbian patriarchate. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian government has taken sides in an internal split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

“Suspect” Minority Faiths

The denial of top-ranking legal status to smaller Protestant churches, Hare Krishna communities, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and others goes hand-in-hand with a widespread popular opinion that such faiths are “sects” and thus possibly dangerous. Adherence to them is interpreted as a betrayal of one’s cultural heritage, while denial of legal status reinforces these perceptions. School textbooks, official versions of history, and media coverage often reinforce popular suspicions and prejudices, possibly leading to a denial of rights. In Serbia and Bulgaria minority faithful have faced difficulty retaining jobs in sensitive areas, such as teaching school. When members of minority religions are in institutions, including prisons, hospitals, or the army, they find it difficult to invite their spiritual leaders to minister to them.

Such attitudes at the official and popular levels also allow religious minorities to be attacked with near impunity. Officials who dislike particular religious communities have an array of tools to use against them. Bulgaria’s prosecutors and courts have repeatedly tried to prosecute leading bishops of the Alternative Orthodox Synod as impostors, as well as running a long legal battle to strip the tiny Ahmadi Muslim community of its legal status. Meanwhile, Macedonian authorities have demolished a Serbian Orthodox monastery, claiming it was built without due permission. Serbia also has threatened to demolish a Romanian Orthodox Church, and serious physical attacks on minority places of worship and individuals have occurred in Serbia and Kosovo. More than 140 Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo have been destroyed or badly damaged since 1999, including a spate of attacks in 2004

Property Rights Infringed

In addition to attacks on individuals and property, one of the thorniest issues has related to building or extending places of worship. The denial of full legal rights to religious minorities, combined with official and popular prejudice against them, has made building or expanding facilities all but impossible in many states. In practice, Macedonia almost never allows religious minorities to build places of worship, while Bosnia’s local authorities generally obstruct building places of worship other than those of the dominant local faith, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Muslim. Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses have also suffered. Croatia has failed to return confiscated churches to the Serbian Orthodox, neither permitting the rebuilding of destroyed churches, nor protecting existing churches from attack. In Slovenia, the Muslim community has complained for many years of official foot-dragging over its attempts to build a mosque in the capital, Ljubljana. In Serbia and elsewhere religious minorities also find it hard to recover property confiscated during the Communist period.

International Protection of Religious Freedom—In Theory

All the states of the region are members of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), while several are also members of the European Union (EU), which should in theory require them to respect full religious freedom. Although these bodies have intermittently tried to press for or encourage improvement in these countries’ laws and practices, local ruling elites have been adept at avoiding the changes needed to meet these commitments. When OSCE and Council of Europe experts assess new draft religion laws, for example, governments often ignore their recommendations. In an apparently successful bid to avoid close international scrutiny, religion laws have often been rushed through parliaments at awkward times of the year. Bulgaria adopted its law around Christmas 2002, Serbia adopted its 2006 law during Orthodox Holy Week, and Romania adopted its law around Christmas 2006.

Although nowhere in the region are religious communities persecuted to the extent they are in Uzbekistan or Belarus, let alone Saudi Arabia, the continuing denial of rights is very real. Of all the intergovernmental bodies, the Council of Europe has proved to have the most teeth in promoting religious freedom, primarily because of the existence of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Through a growing number of judgments and despite a few erratic ones, a strong case law is developing to uphold rights to religious freedom.

Additional Threats to Religious Freedom

Europe is still settling down from the upheavals of the 1990s, including the ending of Communist rule, and the Yugoslav Civil War. These upheavals, coupled with the challenges of European integration and mass migration, coexist with religious freedom held hostage to nationalist insecurities and competition for adherents and property. Rights continue to be seen in communal rather than individual terms. Hope remains that a more stable future will allow religious communities to have a place in society based on their own merits rather than due to state backing or state prejudice. It also is to be hoped that individual rights will be protected regardless of the way powerful sectors of society regard minority faiths, and that atheists, secularists, and agnostics will be allowed to reject the dominant faith of their ethnic group. To that end, of necessity, undemocratic rule and growing nationalism in much of southeastern Europe will require ongoing close scrutiny of threats to religious freedom. F

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission of the author and Paul A. Marshall, ed., Religious Freedom in the World (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

Felix Corley is a correspondent for Forum 18, a Norwegian-based religious rights news service focused on the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and China.