Despite government actions to prevent them, societal violence and vandalism continued against several minority religious communities. The government engaged with legal experts from religious communities to agree upon the text of a draft law to address the absence of a mechanism for religious groups to register. Minority religious groups continued to experience problems obtaining property for churches and cemeteries because municipalities failed to act upon requests. Several long-standing disputes over ownership of religious property remained unresolved.
On January 6, several hundred ethnic Albanian protestors, organized by a local missing persons organization with the support of the opposition Vetevendosje (Self Determination) political party and local politicians, threw stones and snowballs at a bus filled with Kosovo Serb pilgrims and returning displaced persons attempting to attend services at the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary in Gjakove/Djakovica. A large police presence permitted the SOC priest to hold the liturgy at the church. There were no indictments at the court in Gjakove/Djakovica related to this incident; however, the local prosecution forwarded one open case to the special prosecutor’s office in Pristina for possible prosecution. The same SOC church was spray-painted on January 10 and 17 with Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) graffiti. At the same location on August 28, 160 Kosovo Serb pilgrims and displaced persons celebrating the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary were confronted by Vetevendosje protesters who threw stones, firecrackers, and red paint at the police, who responded with tear gas. The police arrested one person; no pilgrims were injured.
On November 7, the police escorted hundreds of displaced Kosovo Serbs to visit SOC cemeteries and churches throughout the country to commemorate All Souls’ Day; no incidents were reported.
Leaders of the country’s BiK, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, SOC, and Union of Kosovo Tarikats (UKT, a Sufi body) communities continued to criticize the government for its failure to complete a draft law amending the law on religious freedom. Although many groups said they had found alternative methods to conduct some of their business affairs, most reported difficulties in registering property and vehicles, opening bank accounts, and paying taxes on employee salaries. Some religious communities opened bank accounts that were not in their communities’ names, and the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church received a tax accounting number from the government in order to pay taxes as if it were a business. Some communities said it was nevertheless still difficult to undertake basic financial tasks. On September 4, representatives of the Office of the Prime Minister met with religious communities and agreed to send the draft law on religious freedom to parliament. The draft was based on consultations with all religious communities over several years and was in line with 2014 recommendations from the Council of Europe. On November 30, the parliament did not approve the draft law, sending it back to the government which took no additional action on the draft during the year.
Some school officials applied an administrative instruction previously issued by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology prohibiting primary and secondary students from wearing religious garb on school property; others did not. The ombudsperson’s office did not receive any reports of a school barring students wearing religious garb, such as headscarves, from attending classes. According to BiK, public schools did not expel any students for wearing headscarves while attending classes.
Religious groups said government authorities did not take steps to ensure municipalities treated religious organizations equally on property issues, in particular with regard to churches and cemeteries. Protestants said municipalities had not granted land for cemeteries, nor addressed their requests to build churches on land the community owned. At a November 18 public hearing organized by the Pristina municipal authorities to consider a request by the Protestant community for a new cemetery space, political parties expressed support for the initiative but blamed each other for failing to approve the community’s request. Existing Jewish and some Serbian Orthodox cemeteries were in disrepair, the former because the Jewish community was too small to maintain them, and the latter because SOC members had been displaced from areas where the cemeteries were located. Although municipalities held title to all cemeteries, they did not always maintain them.
To discuss property issues, Protestant leaders met with the Office of the President, the ombudsperson, Kosovo religious leaders, and national and local government officials, including Pristina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti. Municipal officials in Ferizaj/Urosevac, Gjakove/Djakovica, and South Mitrovice/Mitrovica refused to meet. Municipal officials in Gjilan/Gnjilane met with the Protestant Church as part of a wider OSCE-facilitated process that included other religious communities. Protestant leaders in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica said they faced limitations on holding Protestant funeral services at cemeteries effectively controlled by, respectively, BiK and the Catholic Church.
Representatives of the Messiah Evangelical Church in Pristina reported municipal authorities from Vetevendosje continued to refuse to issue a building permit for a house of worship, despite the Church’s work with municipal engineers to ensure the property and plans complied with legal requirements.
On June 12, the appellate panel of the Special Chamber of the Supreme Court (SCSC) on Privatization Matters ruled it did not have jurisdiction in a property dispute over 59 acres of land between the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery and a defunct, Yugoslav-era, state-owned enterprise supported by the municipality of Decan/Decani. The SCSC panel set aside a 2012 SCSC judgment enforcing a 2009 settlement. The SOC stated the decision violated its constitutional rights to a fair and timely trial, equality, the protection of property, a legal remedy, and the judicial protection of rights. The SOC submitted an appeal to the Constitutional Court on November 3. On December 3, the Constitutional Court barred new construction on the disputed land while hearing the case and allowed the SOC to continue its current use of the property for farming through May 31, 2016.
On January 30, as required by law, the Rahovec/Orahovac municipality established a council to protect the village’s 13 medieval SOC churches.
The Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency and other government offices continued to occupy an SOC-owned building without paying the rent stipulated by a 2011 decision of the prime minister. The government stopped making the agreed payment to the SOC in 2014. The government said the building was not owned by the SOC, and the Kosovo Property Agency had previously told the media the Institute for the Protection of Historic Monuments owned the property.
SOC officials expressed satisfaction with the Pristina Basic Court’s dismissal on November 25 of a 2012 lawsuit by the University of Pristina (UP) requesting the demolition of the consecrated, but unfinished, Christ the Savior Church and the transfer of the land to the university. UP representatives failed to appear at the hearing, prompting the court to deem the claim withdrawn. SOC officials had expressed concern over statements in the media and by political parties calling the church “illegal.” In June the SOC complained that teenagers had used the church as a “climbing facility.”
On November 9, the Basic Court of Pristina ruled in favor of the Catholic Church in an ownership dispute with the municipality over property located adjacent to the Mother Teresa Cathedral.
The SOC said the minister for culture, youth, and sports (CYS) attempted to sabotage the IMC’s mandate by publicly refuting the need for the committee. The SOC also stated the IMC did not function well and had not met since June.
The SOC expressed concern over the draft law on cultural heritage, which passed the government April 1 and was approved by the parliament in a first reading April 29. The SOC stated the law would annul the SOC’s legally guaranteed autonomy and preclude it from independently deciding upon the restoration and renovation of its buildings. The government withdrew the draft law on May 6, and agreed to rework the legislation in coordination with the EU. In August the government also circulated a controversial draft strategy on cultural heritage for 2015-2025 that did not include unique cultural and historical protections for the SOC.
Although the law prohibits religious education in public schools, the central government funded Islamic education in BiK madrassahs in Pristina, Prizren, and Gjilan/Gnjilane. No other religious organizations received government funding for religious education. Some members of other religious groups and secular representatives voiced concern about the government’s funding of religious education.
Kosovo Serbs attended public schools that followed a curriculum designed by the Serbian government, based on Kosovo’s law on education and in coordination with the Kosovo education ministry. This curriculum included the option of religious or civic education in the Serbian language. Most Kosovo Serbs elected to receive Serbian Orthodox religious education. The Serbian government funded the salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors. The Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers in Serbian-language schools.
The police’s unit for specialized protection of cultural and religious heritage sites provided 24-hour security at 24 sites around the country. Despite this support, theft and vandalism continued at SOC sites.
As part of its Interfaith Kosovo program, the government undertook numerous initiatives to promote religious tolerance. The Interfaith Kosovo website, which provided news about all religious communities in the country, promoted increased dialogue among religious communities, civil society, and the public. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized the fourth International Interfaith Conference on May 28-30, highlighting interfaith dialogue and countering violent extremism.
President Atifete Jahjaga and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa visited the SOC Visoki Decani monastery January 7 and called for tolerance and peaceful coexistence following the violent protests against Serbian Orthodox religious pilgrims on January 6.
During an October 31 joint press conference, the prime minister and minister of CYS offered guarantees SOC land would not be expropriated and promised the SOC would have full freedom to use its property. The two officials cited existing legislation that provides special protective measures, including physical security, for SOC sites.
The government passed a strategy to combat violent extremism and an accompanying action plan on September 19 that mapped out a five-year plan to stem what the government perceived as the growing threat of violent extremism through a whole-of-government approach, emphasizing the critical role of local stakeholders and civil society, including BiK.