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Croatia joins former communist lands weighing tilt toward majority faiths

OXFORD, England (BP)–Croatia is the latest post-communist country in Europe and Central Asia to propose a religion law that gives preferred status to majority religious groups.

Minority religious communities in Croatia, including Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists, believe the latest draft of the proposed “Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities” gives them a second-class status under the majority Roman Catholic Church, Keston News Service reported April 4. The bill makes a distinction between established “historical religions” and newer groups, similar to religion laws in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Bulgaria. A religion bill that would favor the Orthodox Church is under consideration in Romania’s parliament.

Croatia’s proposed law, which would replace laws enacted when the country was a republic of communist Yugoslavia, will be presented to parliament sometime this spring, Newsroom-Online.com reported April 6. Croatia’s Roman Catholic Church is not considered a state religion under current law, but it is the only religious body to have pensions for clergy supported by state funds. An estimated 85 percent of Croatia’s population identifies with the Catholic Church, although no census figures have been taken since the country declared independence in 1991.

Croatia’s latest draft religion law recognizes the Catholic Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Jewish communities, the Islamic community, the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Church as “historically present churches [existing] in the territory of Croatia for more than one hundred years.” Other bodies in existence at the time the law is enacted must register. Any subsequent groups must register by submitting a special application with details of the group’s structure and number of adherents. Baptist and Adventist leaders say the draft law generally is not restrictive, but they are troubled by the distinction between historical and non-historical religious communities.

In Russia, minority religious groups have claimed that this distinction in the Russian law gives local authorities a pretext for discrimination. Some Russian groups say they have had difficulty re-registering according to the requirements of the 1997 law, which mandates compulsory liquidation for groups that failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline.

Unpublished figures from Russia’s Ministry of Justice indicate that about 10 percent of groups registered before 1997 have not re-registered. Viktor Korolyov told Keston News Service April 2 that the government was not in a hurry to liquidate the 1,500 organizations but that this would take place “in accordance with the law.”

Russia’s religion law established the Russian Orthodox Church as the country’s main religion. The drafters of the legislation, which included representatives of the Orthodox Church, said their intent was to protect against dangerous sects. Unregistered groups cannot rent or buy a meeting place, proselytize, publish literature or provide religious training.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s 10,912 organizations comprised just over half the total reregistered by the deadline. There were 3,800 Protestant groups and 3,048 Islamic organizations that re-registered, according to the government statistics.

Romania has reintroduced a restrictive religion bill that favors the Romanian Orthodox Church. The proposed draft is nearly identical to one withdrawn a year ago after protests by minority faith communities. It would give the Orthodox Church privileged status as the national church and require religious groups to gain government permission to operate. Minority clergy also say it discriminates between a number of officially recognized denominations and those with a “tolerated status,” whose membership is less than 0.5 percent of Romania’s population.

In Uzbekistan, where unregistered religious activity is a criminal offense, many faith communities have been denied registration because they lack the required 100 adult citizens or because the government does not like them, Keston News Service reported. Also, no charities tied to local religious groups have been granted registration, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, despite the central Asian country’s 1998 religion law, which states that “religious organizations have the right to conduct charitable activity.”

Keston reported March 26 that four Baptist churches in Uzbekistan have had their registration applications obstructed despite meeting the provisions of the law, according to Baptist Union leader Pavel Peychev. Local police sealed one of the churches, preventing members from meeting. Peychev said a registered Baptist church in the central Uzbek town of Navoi was ordered to stop its religious work with children. Keston noted that published Uzbek law does not ban the teaching of religion in registered religious groups.

Government officials have warned foreign employees of international aid groups working in Uzbekistan that they are barred from conducting religious activity among the population. The government is reported to have expelled a number of employees suspected of such activity.

Uzbek law allows the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs to censor religious publications. But Compass Direct News reported April 5 that the state allowed an Uzbek language portion of the Bible to be published in the country for the first time. The interdenominational Bible Society of Uzbekistan has printed 15,000 copies of the Book of Proverbs. Over the past decade, local officials have threatened or arrested church groups or individuals suspected of trying to produce or import Christian literature and scriptures, Compass Direct reported.
Reprinted by permission from Newsroom-Online.com.

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