Balkan religious minorities feel excluded, struggle with discrimination

Wedding in a Turkish village in Bulgaria | Ali Eminov

Religious minorities in the Balkans still struggle with discrimination and with a lack of official cooperation in regaining assets confiscated by the communist regimes, the US State Department said in its 2016 report on Religious Freedom, released on Tuesday.

It further added that some religious minorities, such as Protestant groups and also Muslims, report harassment and hardship in obtaining authorization to build new churches, mosques or burial sites.

For instance, in Albania, the report urged officials to accelerate the handling of long-standing religious property claims and to return buildings, land, and other assets confiscated during the communist era.

Similarly, in Bosnia, the report stressed that minority religious groups remain unable to obtain government positions or seats in parliament. In Bulgaria, the report highlighted that minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Muslims reported incidents of harassment and hostile rhetoric by members of some political parties.

The document also pointed out that schools have banned the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab and cross, while some local governments continued to deny requests to construct new mosques or repair old ones.

In Croatia, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the second largest faith community in the mainly Catholic country, estimated 20 incidents of vandalism against its property over the year.

In Kosovo, the State Department noted that religious groups allege that municipal authorities often withhold equal rights and benefits from them, especially with regard to religious property and burial sites.

Also in Macedonia, the Muslim community accuses the government of denying permits to construct or rebuild mosques. The country’s main Muslim body, the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia, ICM, says the government continued to illegally wiretap its leaders, the State Department writes.

In Moldova, the report underscored that religious minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Baptists, reported continuing difficulties in obtaining buildings in which to worship, despite court orders.

Moreover, in Romania, religious minority groups complain of the lack of cooperation from local authorities to establish proper burial sites and of the refusal of the Romanian Orthodox Church – the largest faith group in the country – to allow them to use existing cemeteries.

In 2016, the report noted, two Muslim women were attacked in Bucharest. Members of the so-called Greek Catholic Church also reported harassment by Romanian Orthodox Church members.

The report noted that despite progress in terms of legislation safeguarding equal rights for all religious minorities, most Balkan states still discriminate against some groups and lag behind in returning property confiscated by communist regimes.