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UN expert on religious freedom statement during visit to Republic of Serbia

5 May 2009

Full text of the press briefing of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir, on 5 May 2009 in Belgrade during her visit to the Republic of Serbia:

“Members of the press,

I have been in the Republic of Serbia since 30 April 2009, and I thought that it is in the interest of my visit that I hold a preliminary press briefing to inform you of my impressions that I have so far formed on the freedom of religion or belief in this country. After my visit, I will be preparing a comprehensive report with conclusions and recommendations to be presented to the 13th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The report will naturally be shared with the Government of the Republic of Serbia who has very kindly invited me to visit this country.

I take back with me both positive and negative impressions that are backed by first-hand information I received during this mission. I am well aware of the painful history of this region and fully understand that the Serbian people – and indeed others in the region – have deeply suffered on account of violence, atrocities and wars. Regrettably, ethnicity as well as undertones of religion contributed to these conflicts. Fortunately, it appears that the Republic of Serbia has taken a new turn towards a democratic process in which I believe freedom of religion or belief should play a central role.

It was heartening for me to visit some smaller municipalities, which are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic, where an atmosphere of religious tolerance seems to flourish. Interfaith consultations at the grassroots, national and regional levels are vital to promote understanding, tolerance and respect between and among the various communities.

I was also encouraged by the candidness of the Ombudsman for Human Rights and by his determination to put human rights at the centre of the national agenda. Equally positive was the meeting that I held with the Minister of Human and Minority Rights who has boldly met the challenges in the recent adoption of the 2009 law on prohibition of discrimination. Such institutions can play a pivotal role in healing wounds, contributing to reconciliation and building respect for the principles of human rights and indeed for freedom of religion or belief. A number of my interlocutors, who are active members of civil society, were not aware of the work of these two institutions, so a more open-door policy and their increasing outreach would be beneficial. I also had good meetings with a number of other strong personalities, both from the Government and from civil society, including religious communities. For example, I was impressed by the vision of the Centre for Religious Studies of the Belgrade Open School.

It is, however, no secret that the 2006 law on churches and religious communities has raised a controversy and aggrieved a number of religious communities and groups that are seeking registration or have decided to stay away from it because of discriminatory effects of the law. I sincerely hope that the Government, and in particular the Minister of Religion, will reflect on the legislation and – at a minimum – streamline the registration process so that all religious communities in the country that so desire can be registered. I must emphasize that registration must not limit the right to freedom of religion or belief. Let me reiterate that registration should not be a precondition for practising one’s religion, but only for the acquisition of a legal personality and related benefits. Any registration procedures should be easy and quick and should not depend on extensive formal requirements or on reviews of the substantive content of the belief. In addition, no religious group should be empowered to influence the registration, or non-registration, of another religious group. The distinction in the law between traditional and non-traditional religious communities translates into a number of questionable practices, for example with regard to religious instruction in schools and representation in public bodies.

I am mindful that the Republic of Serbia is going through a democratic process and has several competing priorities, however, the issue of non-discrimination on the basis of religion or belief must remain one of its main concerns. I trust that once confidence is restored to all religious groups as well as to those who do not profess any religion, an atmosphere of tolerance and respect will be further enhanced. A reform and proper implementation of the 2006 law on churches and religious communities would be an important measure of confidence-building amongst various communities, be they theistic, atheistic or non-theistic. A forward-looking approach of the Ministry of Religion will be pivotal in building this trust. By that I mean a Ministry that is accessible to all religious communities and is more transparent and accountable in its decision-making.

I noticed that the voices of those individuals who do not profess any religion or who are dispassionate about religions are being marginalized. They are neither realistically reflected in the census nor given an opportunity to express their views in matters of religion or belief. A truly pluralistic society is the backbone of a democratic system. Theistic, atheistic and non-theistic believers as well as those who do not profess any religion have an important role to play in building that pluralism.

The media, too, has a responsibility to report in a balanced manner, providing an opportunity to present points of view also to those who are criticized on the basis of their religion or belief. I have heard several complaints from religious minorities where the media had painted them as “dangerous cults” or “sects” without giving them any right to reply. In this regard, I would also like to encourage civil society to make more efforts to interact with the media and with mechanisms of media oversight. I would also encourage the media to play a more constructive role in promoting religious tolerance.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank the interlocutors that I have met during my visit so far. My onward journey will take me to Priština/Prishtinë, Gra?anica/Gracanicë, Prizren, Djakovica/Gjakovë and De?ani/Deçan. On 8 May 2009, I will hold another press briefing at the conclusion of this mission.”