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Serbia - Religion

According to the 2011 census, the population ofSerbia was 7.2 million. Approximately 85 percent of the population is Serbian Orthodox, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, and 1 percent Protestant. The remaining 6 percent includes 578 Jews, members of Eastern religions, agnostics, atheists, “others,” and individuals without a declared religious affiliation. Roman Catholics are predominantly ethnic Hungarians and Croats in Vojvodina. Muslims include Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims) in Sandzak, ethnic Albanians in the south, and Roma located throughout the country. Approximately 94 percent of the population belongs to seven religious groups defined as “traditional” by the government: the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Islamic community, and Jewish community. The Islamic community operates under two separate authorities: the Islamic Community of Serbia, with its seat in Belgrade, and the Islamic Community in Serbia, with its seat in Novi Paza.

The constitution and other laws and policies place some restrictions on religious freedom. These restrictions stem from the law’s special treatment of the seven “traditional” religious groups. In practice the government generally respected religious freedom; however, the government imposed some restrictions affecting members of minority religious groups. The Serbian Orthodox Church received preferential consideration. The government rejected applications for registration from several “nontraditional” religious groups. Police response to vandalism and other acts of societal intolerance against minority religious groups rarely resulted in arrests or indictments. Restitution of properties seized by previous governments continued.

Students in primary and secondary schools are required to attend classes on one of the seven “traditional” religions or an alternative civic education class. According to representatives from the former religion ministry, the law permits registered “nontraditional” religious groups to offer classes, but none has attempted to do so. Civil servants from the former religion ministry and representatives of the seven “traditional” religious groups make up the Committee for Religious Education in Elementary and Secondary Schools, which appoints teachers for religious education classes. The Belgrade-based Islamic Community has sole authority to appoint teachers of Islam in public schools.

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 religious classes in public schools. Children belonging to “nontraditional” religious groups generally opted to attend civic education classes. Islamic religious leaders from Sandzak (ethnic Bosniak) and South Serbia (ethnic Albanian) contested the appointments of some religious teachers for schools in their regions. Religious education for students from smaller religious groups was often unavailable due to their low density in public schools. For that reason, the Roman Catholic Church offered religious education in churches instead of schools.

Protestant churches called on the government to abrogate parts of the law that categorize religions as either “traditional” or “nontraditional.” They also advocated removal of the prohibition on registering religious groups whose names include parts of names of already registered groups. Despite this prohibition, the former religion ministry in the past registered several “nontraditional” churches and religious communities bearing the words “Protestant” and “evangelical” in their names. Ministry officials explained that this was the result of efforts to “creatively interpret” the law to permit registration of “noncontroversial” groups as long as similarities between the names would not cause public confusion or provoke legal challenges. However, other religious groups continued to be unable to register due to the name prohibition.

At the end of 2012 there were 17 “nontraditional” religious groups registered: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Evangelical Church in Serbia, the Church of Christ’s Love, the Spiritual Church of Christ, the Union of Christian Baptist Churches in Serbia, the Nazarene Christian Religious Community, the Church of God in Serbia, the Protestant Christian Community in Serbia, the Church of Christ Brethren in Serbia, the Free Belgrade Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian Religious Community, the Zion Sacrament Church, the Union Reform Movement Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Protestant Evangelical Church Spiritual Center, and the Evangelical Church of Christ.

The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox churches, whose autocephaly the Serbian Orthodox Church does not recognize, also remained unregistered. Officials of the former religion ministry previously stated they would not become involved in an “internal schism” within the Serbian Orthodox Church by registering the two groups. The government also 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 have stated these Orthodox groups could not be registered because the word “Orthodox” had already been used in the name of a previously registered church. Although the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches were not registered, they operate freely.

Some right-wing youth groups, including Obraz, Serbian National Movement 1389, and Nasi, continued to openly denounce “sects.” In June the Constitutional Court banned Obraz because its “actions threatened principles of democracy and resulted in discriminatory actions--hate speech, intimidation, and humiliation--against some citizens.” In November the Constitutional Court decided there were no grounds to ban Serbian National Movement 1389 and Nasi. The press, mostly tabloid media, continued to publish “anti-sect” propaganda labeling some Christian churches, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, as “sects” and claiming they were dangerous.

Despite the ban on hate speech, translations of anti-Semitic literature were available from ultranationalist groups and small publishing houses. The Federation of Jewish Communities’ Committee to Monitor Anti-Semitism reported that extremist, right-wing, and anti-Semitic groups were growing. Right-wing youth groups and Internet fora continued to promote anti-Semitism and use hate speech against the Jewish community.

Those who fear the rising influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church -- manifested in the push to teach creationism in schools -- are worried that such proposals will dilute the country's education system and lower public discourse on science and other important topics. Pro-creationists have tapped into an anti-Western, antiglobalist current that has festered in Serbia as high unemployment (16 percent in 2016) and a stagnant economy combine with Brussels' perceived indifference toward Belgrade's aspirations for closer relations and eventual EU membership.

A group of intellectuals exposed a deep rift within Serbian society in May 2017 by challenging the veracity of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Local media said the unidentified "organized citizens" submitted an anti-Darwin petition to parliament in Belgrade, signed by dozens of intellectuals.

The initiative called for a review of the teaching of Darwinism -- the evolutionary history of life on Earth accepted by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community -- and demands that the religiously inspired theory of creationism be taught in Serbian schools alongside evolution. The petition's organizers said their goal is to challenge the dominant status of Darwinism in schoolbooks, arguing it is just one of several theories of human creation and that they question the science behind it.

"I tell you that the [Darwin] theory of evolution and claiming that man came from monkeys offends all [religious] believers, not just Orthodox [Christians]," said Belgrade University professor Ljiljana Colic, whose failed attempts as education minister to oust Darwinism from the school curriculum led to her resignation in 2004.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the most influential regional religious actors in the Balkans. While the 1922 tomos of autocephaly issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch gives the Serbian Orthodox Church a territorial canonical jurisdiction stretching from Slovenia in the north to Macedonia’s south, in reality, it faced many hurdles which prevent it from having equal influence across the Balkans.

Among the most vocal opponents of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s 2018 decision to grant autocephaly (independence) to Ukraine’s new church was the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been very critical about what it considers to be a U-turn policy of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the case of Ukraine.

In August 2018 the Patriarch of the Serbian Patriarch Irinej sent a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reminding him (among other things) that he had given a promise in Chambesy (Geneva), in front of all the Primates, not to interfere in Ukrainian ecclesiastical affairs.

While the closeness and fraternal relationship between the Serbian and the Russian Orthodox Church is not news in and of itself, the motives behind such strong opposition to Ukrainian autocephaly should also be considered in the context of the Serbian Church’s own fears regarding the Macedonian Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2019 18:45:02 ZULU