Recent evangelical Christian court challenges to the July 1997 law on religion in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have resulted in more freedom for believers to practice their faith and have prompted a reevaluation of the constitutionality of the law itself. The law severely limited the practices of evangelicals, threatened denominations with loss of church properties, made home groups and Bible studies illegal, and was the basis for the dismissal of eight foreign missionaries from Macedonia in 1998.
The 1997 law ostensibly provided freedom for religious expression in Macedonia. In practice, however, it did the opposite for all but the officially recognized religious communities: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim. Under Article One of the law, all other groups, including evangelical denominations, are categorized by the pejorative phrase "religious group." By creating two levels of recognition for religious entities, the government guaranteed unequal status, favoring some, while restricting others.
Because evangelical denominations and ministries were not officially recognized as "Faith Communities" by the government, they could not register their buildings as churches. And because the law also prohibited any religious practice outside officially recognized and sanctioned buildings of worship, virtually all forms of religious activity undertaken by evangelical groups were officially illegal. Open evangelism and Bible studies in believers' homes were strictly forbidden under the law and punishable by stiff fines of several thousand dollars for each offense. While no fines were levied under the law, it remained a threat to church workers in the country who knew that at any moment their activities could be halted by the very government that publicly claimed to be the guarantor of religious freedom.
Foreign missionaries ministering in Macedonia also have been victimized by the 1997 legislation. The law made no provision for foreign religious workers to obtain visas and it still prohibits the formation of new "faith communities," precluding the registration of new denominations or parachurch groups. Eight missionaries were evicted from the country in 1998 because of activities that allegedly challenged the sovereignty of the Orthodox Church or violated the religion law, such as holding Bible studies in homes. Missionaries working with the Albanian minority population were particularly at risk. One missionary couple working with Albanians was evicted from the country with only 24 hours' notice.
In late 1998 and early 1999, however, a few religious workers' visas have been issued from government offices. This may be a result of an act passed by the U.S. Congress in October 1998 that links trade and aid from the United States to freedom of speech and freedom of religion abroad. Whether this had a direct impact on Macedonia's law on religion is not known, and it is too early to determine if such visas will continue to be issued to missionaries as a matter of policy.
The Macedonian law has been successfully challenged in court. In December 1997 Ivan Grozdanov, a Baptist pastor and denominational leader living in the capital city of Skopje, with the support of representatives from Evangelical, Congregational, and Pentecostal churches, spearheaded a court case which succeeded in providing some breathing room for believers to practice their faith more freely. After five sessions over a period of 12 months, the Constitutional Court rescinded five of 11 challenged articles, ruling that they violated the constitutional rights of Macedonian citizens. Grozdanov nevertheless asserts that the situation is still unsatisfactory and favors repeal of the law in its entirety. He intends to take the case to the European Court in order to challenge the basis of the law as outlined in Article One, which creates the disparity between a "faith community" and a "religious group."
For now, the court's rescinding of some articles of the law on religion leaves uncertainty as to the true status of religious rights in Macedonia. Clarification is expected from Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, elected in December 1998, who stood for many years as leader of the party of opposition to the government which drew up Macedonia's 1997 law on religion.
Evangelicals sense that under the new government there will be more sympathy for minority religious organizations and a more favorable climate for religious freedom. Georgievski attended the annual prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C., at the personal invitation of U.S. President Bill Clinton, and appears to be supportive of tolerance for Macedonia's diverse religious minorities. The new prime minister has promised to meet with church leaders to hear their concerns.
Stephen Goodwin is Balkans project director for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. He lives with his family in Budapest, Hungary.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report