Yugoslavia religious revival?

Plans are under way for constructing an Islamic mosque in this historically Roman Catholic capital of Slovenia in northwestern Yugoslavia. The move is indicative both of the latitude now accorded religious practice in this communist state and of a more sophisticated official approach that hopes to gain the support of the riligious community.

Allowed a larger role in society, religion could have a great influence in helping preserve the national unity and stability built up under President Tito for a future that everyone, given his serious illness, now is acutely aware of.

Even a few years ago, the building of a mosque here would not have been considered at all. There was no need of it. There had never been any Muslims here.

But today Slovenia, the most prosperous of the Yugoslav republics, is "home" for 150,000 "guest workers" from an army of unemployed in the less developed southern regions. One-third are Albanians from the Province of Kosovo, the poorest area of all. Many are still devout Muslims. And an imam is already here, serving an organized Muslim community for whom the mosque is planned.

Official acknowledgement of this unusual Muslim presence is a mark of the degree of religious tolerance observed under this country's strictly secular communist regime.

Yugoslavia is the only European communist state that has diplomtic relations with the Vatican. These were resumed in the 1960s, after a 20-year postwar break. There is more religious freedom and church-state relations generally more relaxed than anywhere in the communist East bloc.

This includes Poland, where the regime has no option but to treat the Roman Catholic Church, which claims the historical allegiance of most of the population, with cautious respect. Potential conflict is rarely far below the surface.

Religous practice here may not be so widespread. But the churches command steadfast congregations and are filled to overflowing at the major feasts of the Christian and Muslim calendars.

The country's religious composition is as much a patchwork quilt as are its nationalities and languages.

There are about 40 congregations, some with only pockets of believers but all guaranteed a freedom of individual conscience by the Constitution -- within the framework of separation of church and state -- that is generally observed.

The three major religions are:

* The Serbian Orthodox, in which 8 million people, mainly in Serbia and the south, have their roots.

* The Roman Catholic, numbering 6 1/2 million here and in adjacent Croatia.

* Islam, with about 3 million, of whom two-thirds live in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Throughout their history, religious strife and rivalries among the churches themselves have often been as bitter as the fratricidal conflicts among the nationalities.

The worst conflict of all occurred in Croatia during World War II, when a large Orthodox minority was almost wiped out in the fanatical religious massacres perpetrated against Serbs and Jews. The extreme Croat nationalism that erupted again in 1970 is not now of any significance.

"Relations with all the churches have never been so good," a top Communist party official commented recently. This seems true enough, though it may not be the whole story.

The churches still have grievances. There is evidence that a younger generation of Orthodox priests wants the church to assert a stronger voice in social affairs -- something the regime might not view too favorably.

Catholics complain of discrimination in public employment and education and say the state does not grant enough licenses for church construction in big, new urban conurbations.

The government denies this charge and points to some 20,000 new places of worship including 600 mosques, most rebuilt after war devastation but many constructed since that time. The government is also worried by a show of Muslim nationalism sparked by events in Iran last year.

It has reacted strongly to Croatian Catholic moves for the beatification of the late Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, imprisoned in 1946 as a collaborator with the wartime Axis regime under which the slaughter of the Serbs took place.

But on the whole the tolerance of religion has grown markedly in the last few years.

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