SERBIA: Violence continues against religious communities

Belgrade, Serbia - Few violent attacks against religious communities in Serbia – on individuals or religious property - ever result in any punishment, Forum 18 News Service notes. This continues the pattern of previous years. The latest Forum 18 survey of such attacks – covering September 2006 to September 2007 – seems to indicate that although fewer attacks are now taking place, the attacks themselves are becoming more violent. The apparent decline in the number of attacks continues a trend noted from September 2005 to September 2006. However, members of religious minorities are still especially likely to be attacked and have in the past year been beaten and stabbed. Places of worship of minority communities have been the victims of arson attacks.

The information in the survey may be incomplete, but has been gathered from as wide a range of sources as possible, including religious communities themselves, human rights groups, official information and the Serbian media.

One such source is the Novi Sad police, who told Forum 18 on 21 May 2007 that in 2006 it recorded 22 attacks on religious communities in their jurisdiction. But between January and April 2007 it recorded 16, a significant increase in the rate of attacks. This may reflect different ways of recording incidents or greater willingness by victims to report attacks. The attacks in the first four months of 2007 consisted of two on the Serbian Orthodox Church, five on Catholics, five on Adventists, as well as one each on a synagogue, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church and a Slovak Lutheran church. Figures for attacks between May and September 2007 are not available. Although most of the attacks in Novi Sad are smaller in scale and not as serious as those elsewhere in Serbia, they remain significant because of the town's multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature.

Religious communities are sometimes reluctant to report attacks to the police or make them publicly known. There have been, for example, numerous attacks on the Christian Apostolic Church of the Nazarene, who generally do not report attacks publicly. Serbian Orthodox churches are often attacked by robbers, as are Catholic churches, though the Orthodox and Catholic Churches do not normally make each such attacks public.

The controversial new Religion Law categorised religious communities either as "traditional" or "non-traditional". Some within the smaller communities classified as "traditional" have told Forum 18 that they want to follow the lead of the Orthodox and Catholics in not often publicly discussing attacks. For example, Forum 18 knows of smaller "traditional" communities which have denied that they have been attacked when attacks have taken place. Because many officials and ordinary people describe "non-traditional" communities in a hostile way as "sects", Forum 18 notes that this makes those communities more likely to be attacked.

As in previous years, few of those who attack religious minorities are ever identified. Zivota Milanovic, the only Hare Krishna devotee in Jagodina, has been the victim of repeated stabbing attacks from July 2005 without the police taking any effective action to identify and punish the perpetrator. Forum 18 has learnt that nine months after the Evangelical church in Kraljevo and the Adventist church in Stapari were attacked with Molotov cocktails, police have still not found the attackers, despite calls on the police to do so by Serbia's President Boris Tadic.

Religious minorities have complained to Forum 18 that even when perpetrators are identified, charges – if any – are often minimal, especially if the attackers are young people. Police and the courts often respond that "the kids were drunk" and the attackers usually end up with just a small fine.

Police appear to be unwilling to protect members of religious minorities or religious sites at risk of attack – even if they have already been attacked. Muhamed Zukurlic, the Mufti of Sandzak and leader of Serbia's Muslim community, complained of five death threats between December 2006 and March 2007 which forced him to start using a private bodyguard – since the police did not find it necessary to offer protection. He made his remarks on a programme on the Belgrade television station B92, where he was a guest together with the then Religion Minister Milan Radulovic.

Places of worship of the Orthodox Church have occasionally been robbed, but the vast majority of attacks have been on Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness and other religious minority individuals and property.

For the full list of attacks see,