Accessibility links

Breaking News

Serbia: Woman Loses Custody Battle Due To Alleged Jehovah's Witnesses Ties

(official site) August 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A court in the Serbian municipality of Velika Plana has awarded custody of an 8-month-old baby girl to her father because the baby's mother was believed to be a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The mother, who says she is not a member of the religious group, is now taking legal action against the judge responsible for the custody ruling. Observers say the case reveals disturbing details about Serbia's judicial procedures as well as its attitudes toward religious minorities.

The judge made his ruling in the course of divorce proceedings, and awarded primary custody rights to the father despite the fact that the baby was still breast-feeding.

False Claims Alleged

The girl's mother, Marija Arsenijevic, said her husband made false claims about her membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses in order to win custody.

"He claimed that I was a Jehovah's Witness and that I had adopted some of their practices -- this is not true," Arsenijevic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. "I am not a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, although I have nothing against any particular religion. That was simply an excuse made up by my husband to get our child, and he got away with it. The court didn't even hear my side of the story, and yet they felt justified in making the ruling."

More than 80 percent of people in Serbia belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church, but minority religions are protected under Serbian law.

Arsenijevic is now taking the judge to court for making a decision based on her ex-husband's untrue allegations.

It is unusual in Serbia for custody to be awarded to the father. Arsenijevic's lawyer, Stevan Jankovic, said the decision can be seen as a direct attack on a non-native religious community.

"According to family law, the court, before making its decision, heard a recommendation by the Center for Social Work in Velika Plana," Jankovic said. "The center's report concluded that the spousal disagreements originated in the defendant's active participation in the work of the Jehovah's Witness religious community. The report further informed the court that the defendant had in fact adopted the practices and beliefs of this sect, and that one of the beliefs of this organization was the prohibition of blood transfusions."

Jehovah's Witnesses reject modern, mainstream Christianity in favor of what they considered a restored form of 1st-century Christian faith. In many instances, their interpretation of certain passages in the Bible differ from those of other Christians.

Perhaps the most controversial difference is their refusal to accept blood transfusions because of what they say are Bible passages forbidding the ingestion of blood.

Although an adult Jehovah's Witness has the right to refuse blood transfusion, there have been a number of high-profile cases, primarily in the United States and Canada, where courts have stepped in and ordered transfusions for children in the Jehovah's Witnesses whose parents have refused treatment.

Cult Status

Many in the religious community have compared the Jehovah's Witnesses to a cult, and the group has been subjected to frequent persecution. The religion was banned at times in Spain and on the territory of the Soviet Union, and is currently illegal in many Islamic states.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim 6.5 million members worldwide, say they have faced hostility in a number of the countries in which they are active, including the states of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

More than 80 percent of people in Serbia belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Still, Mirko Djordjevic, a specialist in the sociology of religion, said Serbian law offers protection to minority religions and that the court erred in making its ruling without first hearing from defendants of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"This should not be allowed to happen, and it clearly represents a miscarriage of justice," Djordjevic said. "Everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs, which are guaranteed by the constitution and the relevant legislation -- with the stipulation that those beliefs, practices, and rituals must not compromise the rights and the identity of others in any way."

Some members of the Serbian public -- particularly circles close to the Orthodox Church -- believe that members of religious communities such as the Jehovah's Witnesses are not competent to raise children.

Archpriest Dimitrije Kalezic of the Serbian Orthodox Church accuses the Jehovah's Witnesses of "terrorizing" other Christian denominations.

"That sect, or religious community, never entered the Serbian Council of Churches specifically because of a tendency to terrorize other Christians," Kalezic said. "In this case, the mother's rights are under a considerable shadow because of the climate in which a child should be reared and raised. Her child is clearly not being offered the best conditions for growing up."

Persecuted Minorities

Religious minorities have been the victims of persecution in Serbia for many years. Their members are frequently subject to physical assaults, and their places of worship have been targeted by arsonists.

By contrast, according to sociologist Djordjevic, the Orthodox Church enjoys high standing in Serbian society and has to some extent become integrated with state structures. Such clericalization, he said, is dangerous for the public and the church alike.

"The church today plays the role of a political party, albeit informally, and that is certainly not the mission of a church," Djordjevic said. "One can only hope that clericalization will turn out to be nothing more than a passing tendency whose appeal will fade, and that the church will once against turn to its fundamental mission, which is fostering the culture of love for others, whether they are like us or not."

(Branko Vuckovic of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)

Religion And Tolerance

Religion And Tolerance

A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.