Minority religious groups stated the government’s application of the law on registration made it difficult for nontraditional groups to register, and placed burdensome restrictions on non-registered groups, including difficulties in opening bank accounts, purchasing or selling property, and publishing literature. Protestant churches and civil society organizations continued to call on the government to abrogate the parts of the law categorizing religious groups as either “traditional” or “nontraditional.” They also continued to advocate removal of the prohibition on registering new religious groups whose names include parts of the names of previously registered groups.
The Protestant Evangelical Church and Christian Baptist Church submitted additional information pertaining to both churches’ registration and their status as legal entities to the European Court of Human Rights in support of their 2013 complaint that the Law on Churches and Religious Communities violated the rights and freedoms safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights. The documents submitted show that both churches had registered under the 1953 and 1977 laws and at that time were granted status as legal entities.
During the year, the Ministry of Justice rejected the registration applications of four religious communities: the Diocese of Serbia of the True Orthodox Christians of Greece, the Charismatic Church of Faith, the Golgotha Christian Church, and the Orthodox – Old Catholic Churches of Serbia. According to the ministry, the primary reason for rejection was either a failure to submit complete documentation as prescribed by law or failure to address deficiencies in the application by submitting amended documentation. The Hazarerbe religious community also submitted an application for registration for which the ministry had not completed its review by year’s end. The Ministry of Justice approved registration applications for three additional branches of the Evangelical Church in Serbia: the Zrenjanin Church of the Holy Spirit, the Door of Life of Novi Sad, and the Ruma Evangelical Church.
Nontraditional groups stated that, in implementing the registration law, government authorities were placing additional requirements – not specifically called for in the law – on those religious groups. For example during the year the Ministry of Justice started requiring applicants to submit certified copies of their members’ identity cards beyond the legal requirement for groups to provide the identification numbers of their founders. Applicants said this imposed an additional logistical and financial hurdle for groups in less urban areas. Also, some groups of churches were required to submit a new registry for each local church they had established to satisfy the government’s interpretation that each local church was a “new entity.” Other groups complained that although they were registered under previous versions of the registration law, following the 2006 update to the law their original registrations were not recognized and they were unable to reregister.
The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches, whose autocephaly the Serbian Orthodox Church has not recognized, also remained unregistered. Government officials stated they would not become involved in an “internal schism” within the Serbian Orthodox Church by registering the two groups. The government continued to recognize the Romanian Orthodox Church solely in Vojvodina; members of the church elsewhere in the country were able to hold public services only at the discretion of individual bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Government officials continued to say these unresolved issues were governed by the canons of the Orthodox Church rather than secular authorities.
Although the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches were not registered, they continued to operate freely.
The government subsidized the salaries of Serbian Orthodox clergy working in other countries. It provided state coverage of minimal pension and health care payments for clergy of registered religious groups.
NGOs continued to criticize the authorities for slow or inadequate response to incidents of vandalism and other societal acts, including violence, against religious groups, saying arrests, indictments, or other resolutions of incidents continued to be rare. Leaders of minority religious groups stated they continued to be reluctant to report incidents because they did not expect an adequate official response. When the authorities made arrests, they usually charged offenders with destruction of property rather than with incitement of religious hatred, which carried much higher penalties.
Protestant leaders and NGOs continued to object to the teaching of religion in public schools, and some leaders of nontraditional religious groups expressed dissatisfaction at not being permitted to offer religion classes in public schools. Children belonging to nontraditional religious groups generally opted to attend civic education classes.
The government continued restitution of religious properties seized in 1945 or later. By the end of September the government had returned land and real estate in Novi Sad, Subotica, Sremska Mitrovica, and elsewhere to the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish community, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Reformed Christian Church, the Islamic community, the Evangelical Christian Church, and the Union of Christian Baptist Churches in Serbia. For cases in which restitution claims were rejected because the religious community filing the claim was not the initial owner, but rather the beneficiary or administrator of an endowment, the government informed churches and religious communities about a separate procedure. Legally registered endowments could apply for restitution while religious communities would continue to have all the same benefits from the endowments.
On January 24, the appellate court in Belgrade confirmed the verdict of the higher court in Sabac, which sentenced a Serbian Orthodox priest to 20 years in prison for aggravated murder. The same priest had previously been implicated in cases of violence against participants in a church-run rehabilitation center. The priest was serving the sentence as of the end of the year.
The government designated 17 places of worship on military premises – 13 for Orthodox believers and two each for Catholic and Muslim believers. By September, 11of the designated places of worship were functional – eight for Orthodox, two for Muslim, and one for Catholic believers. The government did not provide access to religious services for members of the armed forces who did not belong to one of these three traditional religious communities.