Many of Serbia's religious minorities and human rights activists have condemned as "discriminatory" a draft bill on Religious Freedoms, Churches, Religious Communities and Religious Associations that would give full rights only to "traditional" religious communities leaving other religious communities with lesser rights. If passed, the bill would give full rights only to religious communities recognized by the parliament of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941.
According to Norway-based Forum 18, which monitors religious freedom in Communist and former Soviet states, the draft bill recognizes seven religious communities and Churches as "traditional" and gives each substantial rights in social security, pensions, salary support for communities in remote areas, access to local communities' building funds, rights to perform marriages, burials and to maintain marriage registers. The status of a "traditional" faith is given to those communities recognized by parliament in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941).
Although some other minor churches were recognized at that time, such as the Baptists, they are not given the status of a "traditional" faith in this draft. Those recognized by the bill include the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is given the status of "primus inter pares" (first among equals), the Catholic Church, the Islamic Faith Community, the Jewish Religious Community, Slovak Lutheran and Hungarian/German Lutheran Churches, and the Hungarian Reformed Church.
Baptists have pointed out that all the religious communities recognized by this bill are essentially mono-ethnic, and that the bill therefore discriminates against "multi-ethnic" religious communities. “All these churches that are named 'traditional' are mono-ethnic,” stated Pastor Zarko Djordjevic, pastor of the Baptist Church in the northern town of Novi Sad. “The Serbian Orthodox Church belongs to Serbs, the Catholic Church to Hungarians and Croats, the Islamic community to Bosniaks in Sandzak, etc. This bill does not recognize the existence of multi-ethnic religious communities like Baptists, Pentecostals and others. It is indeed discriminatory."
The Assemblies of God president in Serbia and Montenegro, Pastor Mane Koruga, complained that although his denomination is known worldwide, "in Serbia we are continually regarded as a sect", together with the Baptists, Pentecostals and other Protestant Churches.
"The proposal states that we will not have the status of a church but only that of a citizens' organization which has nothing to do with the Christian faith," Koruga told Forum 18. "This new proposal will require us to de-register as a church and re-register as a citizens' organization. We have been registered with the previous government as a legitimate church since 1952. We cannot allow this new government to destroy our freedom of religion."
Several NGOs, including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, have joined the criticism, as did one political party, the Social Democratic Union. Meanwhile at least two other religious minority communities have reported that international lawyers are already working on this issue on their behalf, and that they will soon go public with their findings.
The Belgrade-based Association for Religious Freedom also issued a statement complaining it was "discriminatory to name only some so-called traditional churches and religious communities". The Association requested the Ministry of Religion to add a preamble to the bill defining the terms "church", "religious community" and "religious association".
In a separate criticism of the draft, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia singled out Article 17, which would grant the same immunity to priests and church dignitaries as enjoyed by parliamentary deputies and judges. "Immunity granted to church officers flagrantly violates the principle of separation of church and state," it declared on July 23. "Should such a provision be adopted, it would not only invest churches and, in particular, the Serbian Orthodox Church as the predominant one with the attribute of a civil authority, but would also be an unprecedented move in the jurisprudence and legal practice of contemporary states that, apart from not recognizing an immunity as such, tend to annul or curb immunity of state officials."
Church historian and sociologist Mirko Djordjevic told the Belgrade-based Beta news agency that the draft bill represents "the clericalization of society and that should be rejected", fearing that this would give the Serbian Orthodox Church "the leading role in society".
The Social Democratic Union requested that the Ministry of Religion withdraw and totally rewrite the bill because of its "retrograde solutions" and breaching of constitutional principles. "All religious communities, political parties, citizens' associations and the whole public of Serbia are invited to participate in a public debate regarding the legislative regulation of one of the basic human rights."
Djordjevic reported that the Baptist Human Rights Committee has already met and drawn up its views. "Except for the first five articles, this draft bill shows exclusivity, is contradictory, diverges from existing social practice and context, and some of the norms are even against the Constitution of Serbia and Montenegro," he told Forum 18.
Djordjevic said that the Baptist Human Rights Committee has sent its opinion to the Ministry of Religion, but pledged it will carry on campaigning against the draft bill. "We will continue to contact various NGOs and our international faith family, as well as politicians and people's deputies in parliament."
Serbia has not had a law on religious communities since 1993, when the previous 1976 law was abolished as inadequate. Attempts to pass simpler and more liberal bills failed, both in the Serbian parliament in 2001 and in the federal parliament in 2002, though these too had been criticized by minority.