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Minority Rights and the Freedom of Religionin
Balkan CountriesHerceg-Novi, Montenegro,
September 24-26, 1999

Seminar Report
Florian Bieber

A Multi-national Program of NGO Human Rights Cooperation
In the Framework of the Royaumont Process

European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, Minority
Rights and the Freedom of Religion in Balkan Countries

In the framework of the Royaumont Process, a regional seminar
gathered well over 100 participants in Herceg-Novi, Montenegro,
from September 24-26 to discuss the state and protection of
national and religious minorities in South East Europe.
Human Rights activists from national Helsinki Committees in South
East and central Europe and other Human Rights organisations,
and representatives of international organisations active in the
area (OSCE, UN), met at the seminar to develop a regional
approach to understanding and responding to the often
precarious situation of national minorities and religious
communities. A number of Montenegrin human rights activists,
intellectuals and representatives of national minority groups and
religious communities also helped to reach an in depth
understanding of this republic and illustrated it as a case study
for the better understanding of the situation of national minorities
and religious rights. The meeting was organised by the Montenegrin
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the International Helsinki
Federation for Human Rights (IHF), in co-operation with Greek
Helsinki Monitor.

South Eastern Europe and its neighbouring countries often face
similar challenges with regard to national minorities. Two reoccurring
types of difficulties can be identified. In a number of countries, the
minorities have received adequate legal protection, but still suffer
from the imperfect implementation of these safeguards. In addition,
most legal guarantees for minorities are still new and have either not
yet been fully implemented, still lack detail, or raise new, yet
unanswered, questions. This situation is most commonly found in the
Northern Balkans and adjacent countries, while the overall situation
tends to be most dire in the Southern Balkans. Although some
minorities have been recognised in most countries, many remain legally
un- or under-protected and are far from equal to the predominant nation.

The role of religion remains a difficult point in the Balkans and its
neighbouring countries. In most states the governments have made
attempts to establish the predominant religion as a formal or informal
state-church, thus jeopardising the rights of other, small religious
communities. The smaller religious groups, either connected to long
established groups in the region or religions which gained a new
following since the end of communism, have often encountered difficulties
in registering and even in the free assembly of its believers. While most
of the other developments in minority and religious rights can be seen in
a different light in Western Europe, this problem of small religious
communities can be identified on a Europe-wide scale.

Similarly, the plight of the Roma throughout South East Europe, and
indeed throughout Europe as a whole, remains the most consistently
difficult and recurring challenge on most of the continent. Insufficient
access to education, discrimination in employment from private and
public sectors, as well as open xenophobia and racism towards Roma
are prevalent in all the countries under discussion at the conference.

The conference provided the opportunity to exchange different
approaches to similar problems and thus enable activists to have
a more comprehensive and coherent approach to the challenges
which remain in South East Europe, often independent from state
borders. In addition, the exchange with representatives from
international organisations and the co-ordination amongst activists
will improve the usage of international mechanisms to tackle the
challenge of national and religious minority rights in South East Europe.

1. Minority Rights

a. Current Trends in Minority Rights in the Balkans

Minorities tend to escape an acceptable working definition.
While some definitions remain too broad and thus offer little
specificity, narrow definitions tend to be exclusive, which is problematic
for minorities. Despite the difficulties in defining minorities in law and
academia, minorities can usually be identified with relative ease
in each particular case.
No country in South East Europe (as indeed in the rest of Europe)
is without minorities.

Generally, two trends with regard to minority rights can be observed.
In a large number of countries, and particularly in the Northern Balkans,
a comprehensive system of the legal protection of minorities has been
introduced. Here the biggest problems stem from the difference between
formal and informal rights. On the other hand, a number of countries have
not legally committed themselves to the adequate protection of minorities;
ranging from inadequate safeguards to the non-recognition of the minority.

In Northern Balkans and adjacent countries, the most accentuated problem
of discrimination is the situation of the Roma (see 1c). However, other
minorities also suffer from discrimination, especially during a repressive and
(semi) authoritarian political system; as has been the case of Hungarians in
Slovakia and continues to be the case for Serbs in Croatia.

The most extreme case of non-recognition of minorities can be found in the
Southern Balkans. Greece only recognises Muslims of Western Thrace as a
minority group, based on the treaty of Lausanne with Turkey from 1923.

However, even this recognised minority is subject to the heavy-handed
approach of the government and frequent interference into the affairs of
the community.
Other groups (Pomaks, Macedonians, Roma and Albanians) remain

unrecognised. The case of Croatia illustrates discrepancies that remain
present throughout the region between the legal framework and reality.
While the rights of national minorities are relatively well legislated, the
situation of Serbs in particular remains dire.
During the years of the war (1991-1995) approx. 10,000 houses of
Serbs outside the war zone were blown up. Serbs continue to be
discriminated against in employment, housing and by the police.
While in other countries differences between legal protection and
treatment of minorities can be observed, the discrepancy is considerably
larger in Croatia, largely due to the absence of political will on the side of
the government to address the issue. The authorities’ behaviour towards
the minority suggests either assimilation or departure as alternatives for
members of the minority. Similarly, in the Republika Srpska, the legal
framework remains largely cosmetic and minorities encounter broad
discrimination, often a heritage of the war, i.e. the prevention of the
return of refugees to the RS and the absence of functioning mosques.
Further, in Serbia the inadequacies of the legal framework bear no
relationship to the flagrant violence of minority rights. In addition,
Serbia demonstrates that a high degree of centralisation proves
detrimental for minority rights, especially when government legitimacy
is not based on protecting the interests of minorities.

The current legislation on national minorities in most countries is relatively
new, and often encounters problems. In Hungary, for example, the new
law on local self-government of national minorities allows institutional
representation to everyone who wishes to vote or run for office.
While this avoids a state-defined limitation to membership of national
minorities, it can lead to the so-called "cuckoo-effect" whereby non-minority
members take advantage of the system for personal political or material gain.
In Hungary, the simultaneous general elections and minority local
self-government elections exacerbate this danger, as many people are able
to vote in the ballot for minority representation without making the conscious
decision to participate in elections for minority self-government.

In a number of countries minorities do not enjoy any legal protection.
This is frequently the case for "new minorities" who become a minority through
the dissolution of larger states (or their ethnic division). In the case of Bosnia,
except for Muslims, Croats and Serbs, minorities are only marginally
protected by law. Furthermore, the minority population of the respective entity
(Muslims and Croats in the Republika Srpska, Serbs in the Federation of Bosnia)
are de-facto second class citizens and remain excluded from political,
social and economic spheres. In the case of Serbia, Serb refugees from outside
of Serbia could be added to these "new minorities" as they are systematically
excluded from housing, social benefits, education and employment.

In a number of cases, minorities also show little respect for minorities within the
minority (i.e. women and religious minorities) or the territory in which the minority
dominates. This can manifest itself through attempted assimilation, discrimination
or segregation; for example the pressure from the Albanian community in Gostivar
(Macedonia) to assimilate Roma.

Throughout South East Europe there is a tendency to apply the same laws differently
when dealing with dominant nation(s) and minorities. In Bulgaria for example,
the constitution bans parties along ethnic or national lines. While the founding of a
predominantly Turkish party was allowed, Roma parties were frequently denied
registration on the basis of this constitutional provision.

b. Approaches and Solutions to Problems in Minority Rights

The difference in legal protection and the social, economic and political inequalities
between minorities and the majority, call for a more pro-active approach to minority
rights beyond legal measures to ensure equality. One approach would be to promote
affirmative action for minorities to combat "quiet discrimination".

NGOs, minority groups and international organisations must co-ordinate their activities
in the sphere of minority rights. Because there are a number of different international
organisations working on related aspects of minority rights, there is a need for co-operation
in order to avoid the unnecessary duplication of efforts. There is a need for a central point
of information gathering on the status of minorities throughout the region, which is publicly
accessible and relies on information from all possible sources.

NGOs have to utilise the channels for input open to them in international organisations,
such as with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.

c. The Challenge of Roma Rights

Of all the countries in South East Europe, Roma were described as the, or at least
one of the most precarious minority groups. Many similarities can be observed in
the treatment of Roma from a legal, political, and social perspective throughout
the region. The 12 to 15 Million Roma are generally marginalised in society and
suffer from the absence of adequate legal protection, unequal access to
education and employment, overt and covert discrimination, and outright
hate crimes.

The number of Roma in South East Europe remains difficult to determine,
as most official figures are considerably lower than the real number.
This is mostly due to the reluctance of a large number of Roma to register
as such for the fear of discrimination.

In most countries, a large number of Roma children are unable to attend
school, as their precarious economic situation leaves them hungry and in
need of work to survive. In addition, many Roma children experience open
discrimination in school, including beatings, which often lead to withdrawal
from the educational system. Furthermore, a number of countries, such as
Bosnia and Montenegro, do not insist on mandatory schooling in the case
of Roma. Many countries informally segregate Roma children from others
through "special schools" for children with learning difficulties. In most
cases these schools are largely attended by Roma children. Causes for
this segregation lie frequently in the types of testing done to determine
eligibility for "normal schools." Thus, most Roma children are denied access
to an education which would open opportunities to regular employment or
further education. An increasing number of Roma leaders now insist on
ending the segregation of Roma in schools.

Housing remains another pressing problem for a large number of Roma.
Many settlements do not have adequate water, electricity and public
transport facilities. Access to telephones is frequently absent, which is
particularly problematic in cases of medical emergencies. In many countries,
Roma living in these settlements are subject to forced evictions for the
construction of different facilities. The separate housing of Roma also leads
to segregated education, where no special schools exist.
The schools in predominantly Roma neighbourhoods are mostly underfunded
and consequently provide a lower level of education.

Roma are often discriminated against in employment by both government
and private businesses. Unemployment of Roma in most countries runs at
more than 70 %. In areas of ethnic tension between national communities,
as in Bosnia, a national key (distribution of public offices and civil service
position according to an established system) seeks to guarantee the rights
of the national communities in the political and economic sphere,
excluding Roma de facto.

The authorities’ attitude towards Roma is often problematic. Frequently,
Roma receive considerably harsher punishments than non-Roma for the
same or similar crimes. When Roma are victimised, the perpetrators often
remain free. In dissolving countries (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia),
Roma have suffered from difficulties regarding the acquisition of citizenship
in the new countries. While most countries have created a legal framework
for the protection of minority rights, few have passed a comprehensive
program to integrate Roma into society. Even where such programs have
been decided upon, as in Bulgaria, their implementation remains doubtful.

In addition to the precarious status of Roma throughout the region, problems
of discrimination within the Roma community remain; particularly with regard
to women and children.

Roma have become particular victims of national conflicts in South East Europe.
During the wars in former Yugoslavia, Roma were often the victims of ethnic
cleansing together with the respective minority, as in the Republika Srpska.
In addition, they were often accused of taking sides and discriminated against
accordingly. In many cases Roma suffered more from discrimination than the
supposed "guilty" nation, due to their weak position and the absence of outside
protection. This can be observed in Eastern Slavonia, but also in Kosovo.

Unlike the nations and ethnic groups directly involved in the conflict,
Roma were frequently not recognised as refugees from the wars and were
thus labelled "economic migrants" in Western countries. The living conditions of
Roma refugees, particularly from Kosovo, have been extremely precarious.

In all countries, public opinion towards Roma is generally hostile, cutting across
national divisions. In a number of countries, for example in Romania, the media
engages in hate speech against Roma and thus increases public hostility.
In the most extreme cases, these negative stereotypes articulated themselves
in pogroms and attacks against individual Roma or groups. In the Czech Republic
and Slovakia, but also in Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bulgaria, skinheads and other
extreme right-wing youth groups attack Roma, resulting in heavy injury and
even death. In addition, large-scale programs took place in South East Europe in
which entire Roma settlements were attacked, as occurred in Danilovgrad in
Montenegro in 1995. The pogroms, triggered by a rape committed by a Roma lead
to the burning of the Roma settlement. In the aftermath, all Roma had to leave
town and only a few Roma have since returned. Police forces in different countries
frequently engage in violence and "preventive arrests" against Roma.

d. Approaches and Solutions to Problems of Roma

NGO’s need to raise awareness of the situation of Roma in South East Europe
in International Organisations. On the local and national level, even more attention
needs to be directed to the status of Roma. Furthermore, NGO’s working on aspects
of Roma Rights will have to co-operate more actively with each other and with Roma
organisations. As most discrimination against Roma is carried out informally, it is
extremely difficult to prove. One way to raise awareness and address the frequent
discrimination by the legal system has been suggested: a comparative study of
sentences against Roma and non-Roma for similar crimes might help to reveal the
inequalities in legal treatment. Human Rights activists will need to disclose and
speak out against all forms of discrimination and in particular address the problem of
citizenship for Roma in a number of countries.

2. Religious Rights

a. Current Trends in Religious Rights in the Balkans

While the status of national minorities in the Balkans has received broad, if not
necessarily well-differentiated, reporting in the international media and attention
in international organisations, the situation of religious rights has featured less
significantly on the public agenda. A number of similarities between the status of
national minorities and religious groups can be detected in most Balkan countries.
The dominant nation and religion generally receive privileged status in state structures,
while the small communities are generally viewed with suspicion by authorities.
However, even these groups do not necessarily demonstrate an adequate tolerance
to other minorities or minorities within the groups. In all the countries under consideration
here, three problems are widespread. In many countries the dominant religion or other
religious groups are instrumentalised for political purposes. In addition, conflict erupts
between traditional religious and new religious groups in the region.
This conflict can be observed even in countries that did not experience the communist
period with "sheltering" from new religious communities until 1989.

Finally, the many religious groups face difficulties with registration as a religious
community and freedom of assembly. All these problems are intimately connected
to the privileged position granted to one or several "traditional" religious communities.
While there is no international treaty dealing specifically with religious freedom,
several international standards do exist. These includes the provisions of the European
Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
provisions in several other UN special conventions and anti-discrimination provisions in
a number of international treaties. To these should be added the OSCE commitments
on Freedom of Religion, the jurisprudence of the European Court on Human Rights and
the General Comments of the UN Human Rights Committee.

In a large number of countries in South East Europe, the hierarchy of the dominant
religious community attempts to intervene directly in the political sphere. This might
manifest itself through directly supporting either the government of the political
opposition or through the articulation of its own political programme. In particular
the Serbian Orthodox Church played a pivotal role in promoting nationalist goals in
Serbia. However, it appears to have shifted in certain respects recently.
While some segments protected Albanians in Kosovo during the mass expulsion of
Albanians in early 1999 and addressed the issue of responsibility, large parts of the
church still refuse to acknowledge their role in the wars in former Yugoslavia and
advocate separation of the different nations, particularly in the case of Kosovo,
where partition and "cantonization" are promoted. Other countries are also exposed
to a process of "desecularization" where the church gains a (recognised) role in
the political sphere and society.

There is a tendency to accept the "Greek model" of the state, recognising the
traditionally dominant church as the official church. Greece has frequently been
taken to the European Court for Human Rights in respect to religious rights.

In many countries, formal and informal means are used to privilege the dominant
church, opposed to either traditional religious minorities or the New Religious Movement.
In the case of Croatia, for example, Catholic Churches have been restored since
the end of the war, while other religious buildings have only received little support for
reconstruction. In addition, believers of other religious groups, especially the Serbian
Orthodox Church, are under considerable pressure in small communities.
This informal preference can also be identified in statements of government officials,
such as the Prime Minister Georgievski of Macedonia, who emphasised the need for an
official religion in order to achieve political and economic success. In Greece the link
between the state and the church is emphasised in the constitution, which describes
the Greek Orthodox Church as a state religion and furthermore elevates internal church
regulations to state law, with changes only possible with the approval of the state.

The state often intervenes in inner-church conflicts and in the internal matters of the
church, especially regarding ecclesiastical hierarchies. This pertains particularly to
unresolved disputes between Orthodox churches (Serbian Orthodox Church vs.
Macedonian Orthodox Church, the split in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Old vs.
New Calenderists in Greece). Often the traditional religious minorities behave with
the same degree of intolerance towards New Religious Movements (NRM), as the
dominant church. Furthermore, the support for certain non-dominant religious groups
is often focused exclusively on their own rights and not on religious freedom at a
universal level.

There is a noticeable tendency of low public support for religious rights, especially
in the sphere of education. In Croatia only a negligible number of students indicated
their interest in participating in non-Catholic religious education. Similarly, in Macedonia,
78 % of children in an opinion poll consider marriages between members of different
religious communities undesirable. This poll also highlights the possible links between
religious and national groups. Often, both are closely identified. Thus, at times of tension
between national groups, overall inter-religious relations may also suffer. Frequently, the
New Religious Movements are also subject to harassment on the local level, often more so
than by the central government authorities. This "decentralised" discrimination is much more
difficult to combat and often manifests itself covertly.

New Religious Movements and religious communities that are new to the region are still
viewed with a high degree of suspicion by the authorities in all South East European countries.
This manifests itself differently from country to country. In some cases, registration of new
religious groups must be done at the ministry of interior, not the ministry of religious affairs;
thus signifying the state perception of the movements as potential security threats and not
on par with already established churches. In Bulgaria, for example, materials of New Religious
Movements have been confiscated frequently. In some countries, registration of these groups
is rendered extremely difficult or impossible altogether. This is not only of symbolic relevance,
but it prevents the communities from having a legal personality. The absence of this status
makes the acquisition of property and other contracts, i.e. employment, impossible.
Albania might be considered the most extreme case, where none of the three "traditional"
religious communities, the Islamic Community, the Catholic and Orthodox Church posses a
legal status or sought to acquire it and thus operate largely in a legal vacuum. Until recently,
in Greece, the long-established Catholic Church was denied legal registration.
Although registration has been possible in the meantime, the property of the church has only
been restored if owned before 1949, demonstrating the practical limitations of the registration
process. Connected, but not limited to the issue of registrations is the issue of restitution,
which remains an unresolved issue in many post-communist countries.

The issue of registration is also of relevance beyond the Balkans. In Germany, for example,
registration as a church is rendered extremely difficult, as such status is connected to a
large number of privileges, such as the ability to offer religious education in schools and a
share of government-collected church taxes. In the USA, on the other hand, religious
communities are offered a similar legal status as other associations, making registration
relatively easy. In Great Britain, the status obtainable for churches is either of an association
or of a charitable association, with the latter being significantly more difficult to obtain as it
is associated with tax reductions. All charitable associations must refrain from political activities.
Throughout the Balkans, registering as a religious community is considerably more restrictive
than registering as an association. The laws on registration in a number of countries,
such as Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia, originate from the Communist era,
which was marked by a clear suspicion towards religion. In Greece many of these laws originate
from the pre-war Metaxas dictatorship.

Another important issue connected with the freedom of religion is the possibility of conscientious
objection to military service, which remains problematic in a number of countries in the Balkans.

b. Approaches and Solutions to Problems in Religious Rights

Registration should not be subject to any obstacles as long as religious communities abide by
the constitution of the country and do not engage in any illegal activities.

Inner-church Conflicts should not be on the agenda of Human Rights organisations unless
they concern the infringement of international standards regarding religious rights and the
freedom of religion. NGO’s should co-ordinate their activities between themselves and
with religious groups across borders, as many problems are similar throughout the region.

3. The Case of Montenegro for Minority and Religious Rights

In light of the fact that the seminar on national and religious rights took place in Montenegro,
this republic received a high degree of attention. The case of Montenegro illustrates some
of the similarities and differences in different Balkan countries.

Like many other countries in the region, the republic is defined as a nation-state in the
constitution. Minorities in Montenegro are not clearly defined.

While the relations between majority and minority population have improved considerably
in recent years, many issues remain problematic; such as the usage of symbols, media
and education. A political climate that allows open and honest discussions between
all groups, national and religious, must be created. As in many other countries, large
discrepancies between the government programme and the political and social reality
can be detected. Whether this difference is caused by the lack of political will on the
side of the authorities to address the status of minorities, or whether it is the outcome
of a slow transition towards better minority and religious rights, remains a point of contention.

In the educational system minorities are still exposed to stereotyping. In schoolbooks,
for example, Islam is characterized as a "religion of warriors," which affects the Bošnjak/Muslim
community in Montenegro. Minorities remain largely underrepresented in the administration of
the republic. While on the ministerial level a number of minority representatives have been
included, the bureaucracy still lacks adequate minority representation.
Affirmative action is on the political agenda in Montenegro. However, it is difficult to ensure
the support of the minority, without actually opening the doors for misuse by non-minority
citizens who may take advantage of positive discrimination. A ministry responsible for national
minorities has been created; however, it lacks adequate resources and its tasks remain
largely undefined.

The self-definition of all minorities is not always clear. The authorities must respect the internal
divisions within minorities. This pertains particularly to the minority of Bošnjaks and Muslims.
With regard to religious rights, the relationship between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the
Montenegrin Orthodox Church is a particularly controversial topic. Following the end of the
independent Orthodox Church in Montenegro in 1920, the SOC has dominated Orthodoxy in
Montenegro. However, in recent years, there have been attempts to reintroduce the Montenegrin
Orthodox Church. This division within the Orthodox Church was met with opposition from the
authorities and the Montenegrin Orthodox church remains marginalized and is denied equal access.

Overall, Montenegro is a reflection of the notable improvement of minority rights in a number
of countries. This improvement, however, manifests itself mostly through an improved attitude
towards minorities in the political mainstream. This rhetoric has only been partly translated into
improvements in the legal treatment or the social and economic reality of minority groups.

4. Overall Recommendations

As many problems regarding both religious rights and national minorities are similar in many
countries under discussion here, networking and co-operation of Human Rights groups active
in the area is imperative in order to learn from the experience of others and find similar
approaches to similar problems.

Human Rights groups should raise awareness of the problems pertaining to minorities and religious
communities in the media (national and international).

Training of Human Rights activists is important in order to increase awareness of international
instruments which might aid the protection of national minorities and religious groups

Human Rights NGO’s must also act as pressure groups for their own respective governments and
ensure that the issues remain on the political agenda

As religious and national minorities tend to be marginalised in most societies, activists must aid
in preventing the marginalisation of such groups.

International and national mechanisms for religious and minority rights need to be interlinked and
awareness needs to be heightened. RomNews is published by the Roma National Congress on
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