Concerns Remain over Proposed Religion Law in Kosovo

Protestant and Catholic Christians have expressed continuing concerns about the process of adopting a religion law in Kosovo, despite a vastly improved draft text since last year

Protestant and Catholic Christians have expressed continuing concerns about the process of adopting a religion law in Kosovo, despite a vastly improved draft text since last year, according to a watchdog group that monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states.

In a report released on July 1, Norway-based Forum 18 reported that after widespread complaints over the previous draft, prepared by Kosovo's government last November, the government drew up a new version, which it presented to the Kosovo Assembly earlier this year. Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox – regarded as the three "traditional" faiths – were represented in the working group drafting the law, together with Protestants.

Fr Shan Zefi of the Apostolic Administration of Prizren, who represented the Catholic Church in the drafting process, said his Church is generally happy with the draft.

"It is not perfect – nothing in this world is perfect," he told Forum 18 on July 1. "But it's our first religion law, so it is adequate to start with." He said the Catholics hope that anything not included in the law now can be changed later.

Pastor Skender Hoti of the Emanuel Center Church in Gjakova welcomed the removal of the requirement in the previous draft for religious communities to have at least 500 members before they can register. However, he told Forum 18 on June 30 that he still has some concerns about registration requirements in the latest draft.

Pastor Artur Krasniqi of the Fellowship of the Lord's People, a Protestant church in Prishtina, also has concerns, although he too recognizes improvements since last year. He believes the current draft will make it difficult for new religious communities to gain legal status, and also questions whether Protestant communities will get tax concessions if they register individually rather than in one big alliance. He also fears that the law will not end problems over the lack of secular or Protestant graveyards (Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox have their own). He cites the problem of a pastor, who died last year in Gjakovo, who was buried with Muslim rites as otherwise he would not have been able to be buried in a cemetery which Muslims claim.

Some Protestants have expressed concern about the Religious Affairs Department, now within the Ministry of Community and Returns, led by Isa Ukella, an official who was in charge of religious affairs in the later Communist period.

"[Ukella] used to act against Protestants very aggressively then, especially against foreign missionaries who began to come in at the end of the 1980s," one Protestant told Forum 18. "He still pressures believers, warning them that they should be careful."

Krasniqi believes Ukella – who is a Muslim - has too powerful a role in religious affairs. "He describes himself as 'chief of religions'. That would make him bigger than the pope," he told Forum 18. "He likes to control religion as in the Communist times."

The Protestant pastor said he and his Church have always opposed a religion ministry or office. "The latest draft law speaks about a government religious commission made up of officials and representatives of religious organizations, but doesn't define what its role should be," he stated.

Baptist pastor Bekim Beka, however, is less concerned about Ukella. "He was not our choice but we have to accept him," he said. "He is not in a decision-making position, so he cannot obstruct our work."

Beka says some government officials still believe they should control religious activity. "There is no need for that – we don't need a ministry of religions as they have in some countries of the region. But an office that coordinates social activity by religious organizations is OK."

Although provisions in last November's draft that would have made it difficult for newly-founded religious communities to gain legal status have now been removed, some observers believe the government is still working to prevent them gaining ground.

"The government is reluctant to see too many religious communities," one foreigner who has worked with local religious communities told Forum 18 on condition of anonymity. "They made this very clear to me."

The observer believes this makes the law very sensitive, even though religious observance in Kosovo is generally low. "The government feels it has enough problems without conflicts over newer religious communities."