Hannes Richter

Religious Freedom in Kosovo

Hannes Richter

One of the bloodiest chapters in the history of the Balkans took place in the 1990s when major violence erupted in the Serbian province of Kosovo. What started as a guerrilla conflict between Albanian separatists and the Serbian and Yugoslav security forces in 1996, developed into an international conflict between Yugoslavia and NATO. It came to be remembered as the Kosovo war.

Now, six years after the end of the war, religious and cultural differences remain unresolved. International peacekeeping forces have remained in the country as a safeguard against another outbreak between ethnic and religious entities.

On the political level, Serbs and Albanians cannot agree on the future status of the province - a certain form of autonomy within Serbia versus national sovereignty. Living together has been anything but harmonious; indeed, it has more closely resembled an uneasy truce.

Against this backdrop, Vienna recently hosted a seminar on Religious Freedom and the Principles of Autonomy of Religious Institutions. On July 8-10, political figures and representatives from the different Christian and Muslim communities of Serbia and Kosovo met with legal experts and diplomats from the European Union and the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Initiated by Austrian Foreign Minister Plassnik, in cooperation with the Foundation,  Pro Oriente, and the University of Vienna, the group was brought together to discuss freedom of religion and autonomy as well as the protection of cultural property and democratization.

Some of the most significant historical, cultural and religious centers of the Serbian Orthodox Church can be found in Kosovo, consisting of about 90 percent ethnic Albanians out of a total of 1,970,000. Following her recent visit to the region, Minister Plassnik expressed her conviction that the protection of religious communities and minorities are closely connected. A functioning legal system is necessary to safeguard all religious communities and provide the basis for the peaceful coexistence of all parties and the stability of the entire Balkans.

For the first time it was possible, through the Vienna Seminar, to involve representatives from the Serbian Orthodox Church into a directdialogue with Kosovo Albanians about the future religious law of Kosovo; a law providing a democratic guarantee of religious freedom.

The summary paper submitted by Austria stated that religious freedom, including the right to change one s religion, is an essential element of any modern democracy. This includes their right to participate in official discussions and offer theiropinion on problems within society. Especially important is the dialogue between government and religious communities as well as among the various communities themselves.