Several of Serbia's Protestant communities have expressed concern over a draft for a new religious freedom law presented by the Serbian ministry of religion.

Although the text of the draft is not yet available, the ministry announced some features of the proposed text. Soon after, Baptists and Pentecostals held press conferences accusing the state of introducing a state religion in a secular state. Concerns have focused on their future status and relations with the government.

"The new commissars are wearing crosses instead of red stars," Alexander Birvis, president of the Baptist Union of Yugoslavia, told a press conference in Novi Sad July 18. "We are still under heavy Byzantine influence, where the state declared what the people should believe or not believe."

However, the ministry is asking for more time and understanding, claiming that the law will follow the best legal tradition of democratic countries in Europe.

"One of the articles explicitly says there is no state religion," Bojan Pajtic, president of the law committee in the Serbian parliament, told the Novi Sad daily Gradjanski List, adding that there is still some time before the law is voted upon. "This is only a draft and it is possible there will be some changes before the parliamentary procedure, which I believe will be before the end of the year."

The Serbian parliament voted to annul the former law on the legal status of religious communities in March 1993 because it "belonged to the Communist times." However, no new law was adopted to replace it. For two years after this, newly founded religious communities were able to register as "citizen's associations," but in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in 1995, this option was abolished. For the last six years, new religious communities have been unable to legally register with the government.

Controversy was sparked by the preamble to the new law, where several religious communities were singled out and their 'historical and traditional' position recognized. The preamble includes the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic and Jewish religious communities, and the Lutheran (mostly Slovak) and Reformed (mostly Hungarian) Churches.

These religious communities specifically mentioned are partners with the government in the recently-announced religious education starting in schools in September. Children will be able to choose between religious education (organized by individual faiths) and study of democracy and ethics. Such religious education will also be governed by the proposed new law.

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"We are against religious education in schools," Birvis said in Belgrade on July 20, "because this should be done by the churches for their members and their children. The state should be separate from the churches, and not promote some and downgrade others. This is becoming an issue of discrimination." Birvis added that the state should not divide religious communities into "traditional, historic, and others."

One of the authors of the current new law's draft—a law professor—declined any comment, preferring to wait until the next round of editing, which will mostly cover the legal and technical side of the draft.

"The law has been prepared following the instructions and experience of several law experts from Germany and Greece," Vojislav Milovanovic, the Serbian minister of religion, told a press conference in Belgrade. "It represents a modern and democratic law affirming religious freedom in the country."

Aleksandar Mitrovic, bishop of the Protestant-Evangelical Church in Vojvodina, voiced that he and the church felt ignored by the ministry of religion. "They did not invite us to any of the consultations," he said. "The draft was produced behind closed doors. We think that allowing Orthodox priests in military barracks is a violation of the separation between church and state. Our constitution says that we are a secular state. Why is one Church now receiving the right to regulate services for their believers, and others not?"

The procedure for adoption of new laws requires several steps: public debate, the government adoption of the draft, discussion in all relevant committees of the Serbian parliament and then discussion at a plenary session and voting. It is not expected that the law will be voted on earlier than November.

Related Elsewhere

The U.S. Department of State's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2000 gives more background on religious freedom in Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro).

For updated coverage see Serbia-Info or Yahoo full coverage.

See Christianity Today's Politics and Law section for more articles.

Previous Christianity Today articles on Serbia include:

Bishops Worry War Crime Tribunal Will Create Martyrs | Four government ministers resign in protest of Croatia's handing over of generals. (July 20, 2001)

Evangelical Churches Stoned, Vandalized | Persecution from Orthodox extremists on rise since Milosevic forced from office. (July 20, 2001)

The Case for Compassion in Serbia | A year after NATO bombing, Yugoslav Christians discover unity in caring for the poor. (March 7, 2000)

Doing Church Amidst Bombs and Bullets | Balkan evangelicals feel strain of ethnic cleansing (May 24, 1999)

Bridging Kosovo's Deep Divisions | A tiny evangelical minority has a vision for how to overcome the explosive mix of religion and nationalism. (Feb. 8, 1999)

Orthodox Condemn Milosevic (Oct. 4, 1999)

Church Planting Faces Uphill Battle (Sept. 1, 1997)

Serbian Baptists Hope for Return to Croatia (Nov. 11, 1996)