Faith-based Drug Treatment in Serbia: In the Name of the Father

October 29, 2012
Despite the violent abuses that came to light against people who use drugs, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) has been recognized by the Serbian government as an important partner in treating people with addictions. NGOs working in the field have expressed serious concerns about the SOC's ambitions in this area.

You could say that this story originated in a recommendation from the EU; but this would be far from being the complete truth.

The European Commission did indeed recommend to Serbia, that the government should involve civil society in its National Strategy Against Drug Abuse (2009-2013). In addressing this issue, however, the Belgrade government seems to have put political considerations ahead of scientific ones. Instead of calling on professional harm reduction and drug therapy experts for assistance, they have chosen to work with the SOC. But even this choice of the Church as a civil partner would have been acceptable to the expert NGOs, if the SOC had not been guilty of committing major errors in its drug treatment programs.

Sadly, in Serbia, the SOC's aspirations in this field came to public knowledge via a video clip leaked in May 2009. The clip shows scenes of inmates at the church-run Crna Reka ‘Spiritual Rehabilitation Centre’ being severely beaten. One of the people administering those beatings, was Archpriest Branislav Peranovic, manager of the spiritual centre over the last six years.

After the video incident, the Crna Reka centre was closed down. But the criminal case against the priest is still pending, while his accomplices (who also faced charges of sexual assault) received sentences below the statutory minimum.

All this did not lead to the end of the SOC's involvement in treating drug users. Under its aegis, six new spiritual communities were opened, in which drug users were required to abstain from drug use in a strict monastic environment, characterised by heavy physical work and prayer. One of these centres is the "Land of the Living" spiritual and therapeutic community in Čenej, often portrayed in the media as an example of good practice.

On July 22nd 2011, Health Minister Zoran Stankovic and the Serbian Church Patriarch Irinej signed a Memorandum of Co-operation, which sets out the respective obligations of the SOC and the Ministry of Health, in respect of the treatment of drug users in the "Land of the Living" therapeutic community: The Serbian Ministry of Health announced, “The ‘Land of the Living’ therapeutic community project aims to physically and mentally rehabilitate people with drug addictions, in order to promote and develop a healthy lifestyle. The goal is to protect and improve the health of young people, and also to support them in influencing other individuals and groups through peer education, in order to protect young people and prevent substance misuse."

This role of the SOC in treating drug users subsequently received further support from the then Minister of Internal Affairs (currently Prime Minister) Ivica Dacic. On March 18th 2012, he signed a Memorandum of Co-operation between the SOC and Ministry of Internal Affairs, regarding implementation of the National Strategy Against Drug Abuse.

"In the fight against this evil the whole of society must be included. The police must cover the enforcement side, the Ministry of Health is in charge of the treatment domain, and all others who can help in any way are more than welcome. May God help us to boost the cure rate, so that we can save the lives of our children," said Dacic, in recommending the Čenej spiritual centre. He also stressed that this centre has nothing to do with the “Crna Reka” case, which was an example of abuse.

Questions arise, however, about the contents of these Memoranda, since their text is not available on the official websites of Serbian ministries. The media have only published official statements from the signatories to these agreements, not the agreements themselves. As a result, the general public has had no access to information about the obligations and commitments made between Serbian ministries and the SOC, regarding the treatment of drug users.

While government officials were promoting the rehabilitation centres run by the SOC (which, according to the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, is supposed to function separately from the state government), another side of the story continued: While the courts delayed in processing the case against the accused Archpriest Branislav Peranovic, he moved to another part of Serbia and opened a new "Sretenje" rehabilitation centre, in order to "treat" drug users with his already tested methods.

According to information from their official website the centre performs its humanitarian activity under the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Sabac and the SOC. The rehabilitation centre claims that the treatment program being used is based on fifteen years of extensive experience working with thousands of addicts.

Even so, the centre came under the media spotlight on the 7th of August 2012, after Nebojsa Zarubac, one of the centre's inmates, was found dead in one of its facilities. According to the official autopsy report, Zarubac died due to inhalation of vomit leading to asphyxiation. Furthermore, the marks of 50-100 strokes from a blunt object were found on his body. Autopsy results indicate that he passed away after a long and agonizing death.

Archpriest Branislav Peranovic was arrested once again, the “Sretenje” rehabilitation centre was closed down, inmates were sent home, and one young man's life ended brutally. All this happened because the Serbian government authorized priests to manage the treatment of drug users, instead of co-operating with professionals in the field of drug therapy.

The most hypocritical aspect of this whole story, is that the Belgrade government and the Serbian Orthodox Church have both attempted to distance themselves from the Archpriest's acts, while other SOC treatment centres continue, unsupervised, to provide 'services' to drug users.

Bojan Arsenijevic, Re Generation, Serbia