Religious Freedom in Europe

2003 Report from Aid to the Church in Need

ROME, JULY 26, 2003 ( Here is adapted synthesis of Aid to the Church in Need’s 2003 Report on Religious Freedom in the World. This part focuses on selected countries in Europe.

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There are serious restrictions to religious freedom in Europe especially in Eastern regions. In former communist countries such as Belarus and Ukraine, the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations continue to suffer violence during their evangelization activities.


Recovering slowly from the moral and material devastation caused by the long atheist regime, Albania today appears as a land of missionary work for many religious denominations. On March 23, 2002, an agreement was signed with the Holy See establishing 11 articles guaranteeing the freedom to profess, including publicly, the Catholic faith, the juridical status of the Church and the ecclesiastic institutions recognized by canon law, and freedom to communicate and own means for social communication. About 100 priests and 300 nuns now operate in the country. There is not yet however, a law regulating worship, in spite of the indications on this subject contained in the Constitution.


President Alexander Lukashenko’s scant respect for plurality of opinions and opposition became clear when, in spite of a great deal of criticism from religious groups and from the international community, he decided to enact a new law on religious freedom, defined by many as “the most repressive law in Europe.”

The law recognizes Russian Orthodoxy as the country’s official religion and emphasizes that the state is obliged to protect the dominant role of the Orthodox from dangerous sects. Hence, the law foresees provisions that make it extremely difficult for other minority religions to operate without previous approval from the state.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

There are still 22,000 soldiers in Bosnia, a country still profoundly marked by the 1990s civil war. This military force appears to be fundamental for safeguarding the balance between the three groups (Serbs, Croats and Muslims). The increasingly frequent return of refugees to their respective places of origin has contributed to reducing interreligious tension.

In spite of this, these returns have caused a number of episodes involving religious intolerance, linked above all to memories of the inter-ethnic war. As for postwar rebuilding, all the religious communities complain that the various governments have caused problems, through obstructionism or bureaucratic delays, with regard to renovating religious buildings destroyed during the war. This applies to Orthodox churches in the region with a Muslim majority, and to mosques, 80% of which have been destroyed, in the region with a Serb majority.


Last December, the National Assembly approved a law on religion, consolidating the Orthodox Church’s dominant role in this country in which the Orthodox faithful represent 83% of the population. The law resulted in protests from the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew and Apostolic Armenian religious minorities.


On Feb. 12, 2002, a first meeting took place in France between the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Interior and for Cults, and the president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, with the objective of creating “a permanent opportunity for dialogue and harmonization” between the government and the Catholic Church.

A French Council for the Muslim Faith will be set up to represent the diverse Islamic communities in their relations with the government and with the objective of settling the various issues that must regulate relations with the state for the second largest religious community in the country.


In January 2002 the Constitutional Court in Germany acknowledged the rights of Muslim butchers to slaughter meat according to the rituals prescribed by the Islamic religion. On Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany signed a treaty in Berlin establishing juridical guidelines for relations between the Jewish community and the state. It also foresees increased financial contributions to the German Jewish community by the state, especially for encouraging the integration of Jews emigrating from former Soviet republics.


The only source of noticeable problems is religious proselytism, forbidden by the constitution but implemented by new foreign religious movements. The only episodes of religious intolerance reported concern two attacks on offices belonging to the Jewish community in Giannina and Thessalonica.

Serbia and Montenegro

There is an ongoing debate in the Serb Parliament about the new federal law on freedom of worship. The evangelical communities report that only some churches and communities are mentioned in the draft, with the risk that those excluded might be considered sects or simply cults by public opinion. Within this framework, the Government has shown an encouraging attitude; religious groups have been asked to put their names down in the register of the Federal Ministry for Religious Affairs.

Furthermore, a new experimental system has been created for teaching religion in state schools, providing a choice between these lessons and social studies, the choice made by most students. The same law is expected to lead to the recovery of religious property confiscated by the communist state after World War II.

Tension in Montenegro between the Serb Orthodox and the Montenegro Orthodox Church has worsened, resulting in clashes between believers, which took place in Berane in early 2002. Prospects for the Catholic Church, however, appear to be good.

General religious tension in Kosovo seems substantially on the wane, while increasingly closer relations have been established between the diverse communities of believers in this region.


During 2002, a draft bill on religion was prepared defining three levels for religious communities, among which, only the two highest levels will be permitted to request legal status. The lower level includes “religious groups.” The two higher levels include “religious organizations” and “centralized religious organizations.” All religious communities must request compulsory re-registration no later than the end of 2003. There has been widespread criticism from minority religious groups. The introduction of a new article in the Penal Code, reproducing a provision used in the Soviet Code of the 1960s during anti-religious persecutions, was greatly opposed.

Finally, the Orthodox Church of Bessarabia, linked to the Patriarchate of Bucharest, managed to obtain registration from the state service for Relations with Religious Communities. In spite of opposition from the Moldovan Orthodox Church, linked to the Moscow Patriarchate, the government yielded to pressure from the European Court for Human Rights in Strasburg.


Latin- and Eastern-rite communities of the Catholic Church continue to encounter problems deriving from the non-restitution of churches confiscated by the communist regime in 1948 and given to the Orthodox Church. The president of the republic, Ion Iliescu, declared that the state could not interfere in returning these churches to the Catholics.


Respect for religious freedom has encountered new problems, especially for the Catholic Church. The Holy See’s establishment of four dioceses roiled the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, which accused the Catholic Church of proselytism.

Parliament has approved a draft bill with the intention of forbidding religious, political and social organizations involved in extremist activities; the bill gave rise to much criticism from those committed to the defense of civil rights.

The U.S. State Department said 2,095 religious organizations risk being disbanded in Russia; many others have already de facto been forbidden. Yet, there have been legal successes for religious movements, such as the Constitutional Court’s verdict overturning the Russian authorities’ decision to disband the Moscow Salvation Army group.


Procedures for the restitution of property confiscated from the Catholic Church are encountering difficulties due to appeals presented by a number of parties. Muslims have protested because state-run television refused to concede free airtime for live programs for the Muslim communities during Ramadan.


In spite of the reforms approved by the government, in view of joining the European Union, there are no signs of liberalization for religious freedom. The state persists in invoking the 1936 legislation to confiscate ecclesiastic property. Although the Turkish Constitution admits freedom of worship, religious services are only permitted in “buildings created for this purpose.”


Respect for religious freedom has improved in Ukraine. Most ecclesiastic property has been returned to its owners. President Leonid Kuchma signed a decree with the objective of overcoming some of the negative and prejudicial effects on religion that remained after the Soviet period.

Strict control by the authorities, however, does not appear to have ceased; the Ukrainian secret services (SBU) keep a number of Catholic priests under close supervision. Parliamentary elections held in March exacerbated tension between the Orthodox communities, in particular between those faithful to the Kiev Patriarch and those faithful to Moscow. A number of Protestant priests, together with Catholic ones, denounced the fact that they had been under surveillance by the SBU, also claiming that their telephones had been tapped and that SBU officers had interrogated a number of ministers.

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