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News 16 Aug 17

Balkan Religious Minorities Still Feel Excluded, US Says

Religious minorities in the Balkans still struggle with a degree of discrimination and with a lack of official cooperation in regaining assets confiscated by the communist regimes, a US State Department report says. 

Ana Maria Touma
The US State Department highlights in its 2016 Religious Freedoms report that most Blakn States should speed up the process of restitution of religious minorities property confiscated after 1945. Photo: Stefan Jurca/Flikr.

Despite progress in terms of legislation safeguarding equal rights for all religious minorities, most Balkan states still discriminate against some groups and lag behind in returning property confiscated by communist regimes, the US State Department said in its 2016 report on Religious Freedom, released on Tuesday.

The report says some religious minorities, such as Protestant groups and also Muslims, report harassment and hardship in obtaining authorization to build new churches, mosques or burial sites. In some Balkan countries, rivalry between different Orthodox churches also leads to incidents.

In Albania, the report urges officials to accelerate the handling of long-standing religious property claims and to return buildings, land, and other assets confiscated during the communist era.

In Bosnia, the report notes a fall in the number of attacks on religious officials and sites during the year compared to the previous two years. It notes continued conflicts between members of the official Islamic Community and minority Muslim groups, some of them Shia, who practise outside the Islamic Community’s scope. The report also stresses that minority religious groups remain unable to obtain government positions or seats in parliament.

In Bulgaria, the report highlights that minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Muslims reported incidents of harassment and hostile rhetoric by members of some political parties. They also said the government failed to prosecute religiously motivated attacks against their members.

The document also points out that schools have banned the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab and cross, while some local governments continued to deny requests to construct new mosques or repair old ones.

In Croatia, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the second largest faith community in the mainly Cathilic country, estimated 20 incidents of vandalism against its property over the year.

The reports says that the US continues to encourage the government to return property seized during and after WWII, especially from the Jewish community, and to adopt a claims process for victims.

In Kosovo, the State Department notes that religious groups allege that municipal authorities often withhold equal rights and benefits from them, especially with regard to religious property and burial sites.

The document also notes harrassment of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the second largest faith group in the mainly Muslim country. Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at participants in several events hosting Serbian Orthodox pilgrims. In one incident, ethnic Albanian protestors threw stones and prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from celebrating the Feast of the Assumption in Mushutishte/Musutiste. On several occasions, vandals damaged Serbian Orthodox Church religious properties, despite government protection.

In Macedonia, the Muslim community accuses the government of denying permits to construct or rebuild mosques. The country’s main Muslim body, the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, ICM, says the government continued to illegally wiretap its leaders, the State Department writes.

The Sufi Bektashi Community also reported harassment by individuals affiliated with the ICM. There were also incidents of anti-Semitic speech on social media and vandalism against religious buildings.

In Moldova, the report says religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Baptists, reported continuing difficulties in obtaining buildings in which to worship, despite court orders. The Jewish community also reported a failure of authorities to react to an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, although it says the government has taken steps to address this.

In the country's breakaway Transnistria region, the Muslim community said it continued to refrain from overt religious activities because of past intimidation by the government.

In Montenegro, religious groups, especially the Serbian Orthodox Church, continued to complain that the law governing their legal status was inadequate, while the government continued to revise a new draft law on freedom of religion following comments from religious groups.

Following the appointment of an opposition party member as Minister of Interior in May, religious groups stated that the government had reduced its interference in the activities of religious groups, however, and had changed its former policy of refusing to issue visas to Serbian priests. The rival Serbian Orthodox Church and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church continued to dispute ownership of religious sites, however.

In Romania, religious minority groups complain of the lack of cooperation from local authorities to establish proper burial sites and of the refusal of the Romanian Orthodox Church – the largest faith group in the country – to allow them to use existing cemeteries.

The government rejected more than a thousand restitution claims for previously confiscated religious propertiesm, and approved only 28. 

In 2016, the report notes, two Muslim women were attacked in Bucharest. Members of the so-called Greek Catholic Church [Uniates] also reported harassment by Romanian Orthodox Church members.

The government also reported incidents of anti-Semitic speech, including Holocaust denial, on television, electronic publications, and social media and in print.

In Serbia, the report states that some minority religious groups continued to say they experienced difficulties in registering and that implementation of the law on the registration of religious groups was biased. 

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