WASHINGTON – The leadership of the U.S. Helsinki Commission expressed concern today over the Serbian parliament’s abrupt passage of the Law on Churches and Religious Communities and called upon Serbian President Boris Tadic to veto the legislation.
“Until recently, Serbia welcomed international expertise during the drafting process, as Serbian officials considered many suggestions and revised early drafts,” said Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). “Unfortunately, elements in the government and the Serbian National Assembly then forced through a draft that retreats from Serbia’s OSCE religious freedom commitments. The secrecy of the process and the sudden loss of transparency are troubling.”
At the working level, the Helsinki Commission has a positive relationship with the Serbian Embassy in Washington and visiting Belgrade officials. Technical critiques of the various drafts have been exchanged freely. A recent version shared with the Commission required further refinement, but the text was in closer conformity than earlier drafts to Serbia’s commitments as an OSCE participating State. The National Assembly passed the law on April 20.
“Considering Serbian officials prepared multiple drafts, each time steadily improving the text, it is unclear why a deficient version was suddenly rushed through the parliament on the eve of Orthodox Easter,” said Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “As he seeks counsel on the legislation’s ramifications, President Tadic should also consult with minority religious communities, as they will acutely feel the effects of such a law. I therefore urge President Tadic to return this legislation to the parliament and ask that the text be withdrawn entirely.”
Among the most serious problems in the legislation are ambiguous registration requirements, limitations on naming rights, ill-defined state deregistration powers, speech limitations, improper public disclosure requirements, and undue deference to registration decisions of other EU countries. Particularly problematic was adoption of a blatantly discriminatory amendment aimed against most minority religious communities. That measure removed safeguards that would have allowed all religious communities currently registered to maintain that status. Regardless of whether they already enjoy registration, all but seven communities would need to reregister.
“Serbia was right to work with the OSCE Mission, the Helsinki Commission and other experts to ensure the draft adhered to OSCE norms,” said House Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). “Considering the shortcomings in the text, the current legislation should be rejected. Such a step would be a welcomed repudiation of the notion that national unity is achieved by restricting individual rights and freedoms. The international community wants to work with Serbia on the draft, and I hope Serbian officials will take full advantage of that good will.”