State Department report on religious freedom: Decision on V. Decani’s land still ignored, 57 incidents targeting religious sites

Stejt department izveštaj o verskim slobodama
FOTO: Office of International Religious Freedom/Twitter

The US Department of State published a new report – the 23rd such report in a row – in which religious freedom in almost 200 countries and territories, including Kosovo, was analyzed. Failure to implement the decision on the property of the monastery Visoki Decani, the attempt to illegally build a road in the protected zone of this monastery, the lawsuit of the University of Pristina for confiscation of property of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Pristina, the protest by Albanians over the pilgrimage of Serbs in Djakovica/Gjakova – read some of the findings of the State Department report on Kosovo for 2020.

The State Department report also reveals, referring to the data of the Kosovo Police, that a total of 57 incidents were registered in 2020. The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites and none were religiously motivated. On the other hand, the Serbian Orthodox Church claims that some incidents were religiously and ethnically motivated, the report states.

The Constitutional Court’s decision on the property of Visoki Decani has not been implemented yet, debts to the SOC

On September 4th, the Kosovo and Serbian governments signed a list of commitments in Washington, D.C., that included a pledge to domestically protect and promote freedom of religion, renew interfaith communication, protect religious sites, implement judicial decisions pertaining to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property, the Department of State report recalled.

The report also underlined that the local and central governments in Kosovo continue to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision that recognized the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land in the monastery’s vicinity.

On the International Religious Freedom Day, marked on October 27th, the US embassy regularly calls on the Kosovo government to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision on the case involving the Visoki Decani Monastery land dispute.

In November, the SOC appealed to the Kosovo Cadastral Agency; its decision was pending at the year’s end.

The report also addresses the lawsuit filed by the University of Pristina in 2017. The university requested the annulment of the 1991 decision to donate land to the Serbian Orthodox Church and the demolition of the unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The municipality of Pristina and the University have disputed the SOC’s ownership of the land, the report said.

The Department of State states that the SOC said the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency continued to dispute the SOC ownership of the property the agency has used since 2001.

“The SOC stated the agency owed rent for use of the property. The SOC received partial payment for the rent in 2018 but received no further compensation. At year’s end, neither the SOC nor the agency had initiated legal action over the dispute.”

The report also highlighted the problem of the illegal construction of the main road in the protected zone of the Visoki Decani monastery, but also the agreement that was reached later on.

“In August, the Decan/Decani municipality began road work within the Visoki Decani Monastery SPZ in violation of the law. The government halted the work following international criticism. In November, the IMC and the Decan/Decani municipal government endorsed an Italian-brokered arrangement that adhered to the law for the rehabilitation of the road. The arrangement included the development of both a bypass road external to the SPZ boundaries, which would connect Decan/Decani to Montenegro, and a separate local road within the SPZ. The proposed road work had not begun by year’s end,” the report states.

The SOC continued to complain about public statements made by Decan/Decani municipal leadership against Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot Sava for his opposition to illegal road construction within the Decan/Decani SPZ.

KP data: 57 incidents targeting religious sites, only 8 took place at SOC sites

The State Department report states, citing Kosovo police data, that 57 incidents involving religious sites were reported during the year, compared with 61 incidents in 2019.

The majority of incidents targeted Muslim community sites, the report adds.

“Of the 57 incidents, 45 took place at Muslim, eight at SOC, and three at Catholic sites, while one targeted property not belonging to a specific religious group. Police classified most of the other 56 incidents as theft, although some involved damage to cemeteries or other property. There were also incidents involving religious sites that were not reported to police.”

Police did not classify any of the 57 incidents reported as religiously motivated, the report reveals.

On the other hand, the SOC stated that some of the incidents involving its property in Kosovo were religiously and ethnically motivated.

“Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as solely based on religious identity.”

The SOC again stated media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year, the State of Department report states.

“In September, the SOC Archdiocese of Raska-Prizren issued a press release condemning an article in the newspaper Koha Ditore by history professor Bedri Muhadri that, the press release stated, claimed without evidence that SOC holy sites in Kosovo were actually medieval Albanian and usurped Roman Catholic churches.”

Kosovo Albanians protest against the pilgrimage of displaced Serbs, churches and cemeteries damaged

On January 6th in Gjakova/Djakovica, the report recalls, local Kosovo Albanians staged a protest in front of the local SOC church, where displaced Kosovo Serb SOC members had planned a pilgrimage on Orthodox Christmas. Media reported that organizers again cancelled the pilgrimage, citing security reasons. Such protests have taken place since 2015.

In August, vandals damaged a SOC church in Srecke/Sredska village in Prizren, while SOC churches in Babimoc/Babin Most in Obiliq/Obilic were desecrated and burgled, the report adds.

The report also states that the SOC and Kosovo Serbs accused „many“ municipalities with Albanian-majority leadership of failing to ensure adequate maintenance of their cemeteries. They also accused the police of failing to provide sufficient security, thus „making frequent acts of vandalism possible.“

Also, the report quotes a Twitter post of the Abbot of the Visoki Decani monastery, Sava Janjic, which stated that the condition of SOC cemeteries in Albanian-majority areas is even worse than described by the OSCE in a 2011 report. According to the OSCE report, 392 Serb cemeteries were in a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ condition.

The State Department also listed the incidents that the media reported about in 2020, which were directed against the facilities of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, as well as the believers themselves.

“There were reports of incidents of vandalism throughout the year at Serb cemeteries. Serbian-language media reported that on January 10th, an unknown individual placed an Albanian flag on the fence surrounding a Serb cemetery in Gornji Livoc, near Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality. In February, Serbian-language media reported unknown individuals vandalized a Serb cemetery in the village of Zac in the Istog/Istok Municipality on the eve of a memorial service. According to media, the vandals knocked over and broke monuments, cut down centuries-old trees that then fell on gravesites, and removed the fence. The church in the cemetery was reportedly also damaged. In November, Serbian-language media reported that several monuments were demolished at a Serb cemetery in the village of Frasher/Svinjare, near Mitrovice/Mitrovica South, prior to a memorial service. According to media reports, in June, a group of Kosovo Serbs visited a cemetery in Mitrovice/Mitrovica South where more than 80 percent of the tombstones had been destroyed. Some media also published pictures of the cemetery, showing broken tombstones and overgrown foliage. In December, Skenderaj municipal officials reported that vandals destroyed a plaque inscribed with the words “Our Church” in the town of Gjytet in Syrigana. The site is a state-protected cultural heritage site. No specific religious group claimed ownership of the plaque.”

The report also states that in April, tombstones on graves of members of the Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian ethnic communities were broken in Rahovec/Orahovac Municipality. The incident was condemned by the major, the then Minister for Communities and Returns and the OSCE.

According to the State Department, BIK leadership stated a group of Mitrovice/a citizens lobbied for the reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovice/a North that was destroyed in 1999, but that “opposition from local Kosovo Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.”

Religious communities remain without a legal status

The lack of legal status for religious communities is the main rift in the protection of basic human rights in Kosovo. The Law on Religious Freedom must be amended, the US Department of State underlined.

“The law on religious freedom does not require registration of religious groups, but it also does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means.

Without legal status, religious communities may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, or access the courts as a collective entity.

Individual congregations or individuals, however, may do so and perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law generally does not protect these buildings as property of a religious community, but rather as the private property of citizens or nongovernmental organizations.”

In September 2020, the cabinet approved and sent to parliament amendments to the law on religious freedom that would permit religious groups to acquire legal status, the report recalls, noting that at the year’s end, parliament had not voted on the amendments.

“There was a persistent lack of a quorum due to the COVID-19 pandemic and boycotts by Kosovo Serb parliamentarians. Absent enactment of the legislation, all religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts registered to individuals instead of communities.”

According to State Department, SOC property is an exception; the law on SPZs acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas within the SPZs.

The report highlights that the US ambassador and other embassy officials encouraged the Kosovo government to adopt amendments to the law on religious freedom that would allow religious groups to acquire legal status, while also calling for the implementation of mechanisms for protection of freedom of religion, implementation of laws and court decisions related to religious sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church and resolution of property disputes of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

It also states that religious group leaders continued interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with central and local authorities, to discuss issues such as cemetery maintenance, tax and custom duties exemptions for humanitarian activities by religious communities, and amendments to the law on religious freedom.

“One outcome of this engagement was improved maintenance of cemeteries by some municipal governments. The OSCE also advocated for inclusion of representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which meet to discuss security issues.”

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