Restriction of religious teaching in public schools in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

An independent United Nations human rights expert expressed disbelief today at the backlash targeted against a recent court decision to restrict religious teaching in public schools in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Wrapping up a five-day visit to the country, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, issued a statement noting that the Constitution "provides that religious communities and groups are separate from the State and equal before the law.

"I was astonished by the outrage expressed publicly by certain religious leaders and politicians against the recent judgment of the Constitutional Court," said Ms. Jahangir. "It is vital that the independence of the judiciary is fully respected, particularly when making decisions regarding religious issues."

A number of people Ms. Jahangir met on official business, including government officials, members of civil society and representatives of religious communities, pointed to the perception that the two major religious communities in the country wield considerable political influence and are eroding the division between religion and State.

The Special Rapporteur noted that the "judgment does not in any way impinge upon the freedom to receive religious instruction outside of primary school teachings."

She added that the UN Human Rights Committee concludes that the freedom of religion or belief allows public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way.

"Furthermore, the Human Rights Committee acknowledges that it is also permissible for public schools to be involved in religious instruction, noting that it would be consistent with human rights commitments to do so, insofar as ‘provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians,'" she added.

During her visit, Ms. Jahangir traveled to Skopje, Tetovo and Prile, noting that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, with by and large a high level of tolerance in its society.

However, she voiced concern over the number of reports regarding expressions of incitement to racial or religious hatred. "These contribute to creating a climate of intolerance and threaten the security of individuals."

The freedom of expression, even when it is deemed offensive, must be respected, said Ms. Jahangir, but promoting religious hatred and incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence must be prohibited by law.

"In an otherwise tolerant society, I was saddened to learn that there have been some cases of mob violence, threats and extreme forms of pressure against members of religious minorities," said the Special Rapporteur. "Their complaints to local authorities have reportedly not been taken seriously."

She underscored the Government's obligation to protect its citizens from acts of religious intolerance and discrimination, and the support civil society needs to provide in creating awareness on human rights issues, including freedom of religion or belief.

"Despite the above-mentioned concerns, I remain optimistic that a continuing debate on freedom of religion or belief in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will contribute to a higher level of understanding and respect between different religious communities and individuals, including atheists."

The Special Rapporteur, who serves the UN in an independent and unpaid capacity, will present her findings and key recommendations in a report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in 2010.