An independent United Nations human rights expert today called on the Serbian Government to reform legislation restricting the freedom of religion in the Balkan State, while finding signs of encouragement in its multi-ethnic enclaves.
Wrapping up a six-day visit to Serbia, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, told reporters in Belgrade that she takes back with her “both positive and negative impressions that are backed by first-hand information.”
Noting that she was 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,” Ms. Jahangir said it was regrettable that “ethnicity as well as undertones of religion contributed to these conflicts.”
The Special Rapporteur also noted that Serbia “has taken a new turn towards a democratic process in which I believe freedom of religion or belief should play a central role.”
Ms. Jahangir was heartened by visits to smaller municipalities, which are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic, “where an atmosphere of religious tolerance seems to flourish.”
However, the Special Rapporteur also highlighted a controversial 2006 law requiring the registration of churches and religious communities, which has aggrieved a number of groups either seeking registration or avoiding it because of discriminatory effects.
She recommended a quick and easy registration process that allows all religious groups to participate and does 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,” she said.
“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.”
Noting that individuals with no religious affiliations are often marginalized, she underscored the need for a variety of views, opinions, and religion for any democratic society.
“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,” said Ms. Jahangir, encouraging civil society to make greater efforts to communicate with the media and urging the media to play a more constructive role in promoting religious tolerance.
The Special Rapporteur, who serves the UN in an independent and unpaid capacity, will present her findings and key recommendations in a report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in 2010.