Serbian Government Accused of Campaigning Against Religion Classes

Catholic and Orthodox Churches Underline Unjust Treatment

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ROME, OCT. 17, 2001 ( Serbian officials are dealing unfairly with children and parents who are interested in new religious-education classes, say Orthodox and Catholic Church leaders.

The Orthodox and Catholic leaders attacked the Ministry of Education and Sport for what they complained was the «anti-democratic and illegal behavior» by the Minister and a group of his close associates «against the basic democratic principle of equal treatment of religious education and the alternative subject, ´civic education,´» Keston News Service reported.

Preliminary results showed that few pupils have opted for religious classes, and the Orthodox Synod complained that parents had not been offered a fair choice.

Serbia´s Education Minister Gaso Knezevic denied any accusations of bias, insisting that school principals had been instructed to be «visibly neutral.»

This autumn the Serbian government introduced religious education in the first grades of both primary and secondary schools for six religious communities: the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Faith Community, the Jewish Faith Community, the Lutheran and the Reformed Churches.

Such classes were introduced despite opposition from many intellectuals, university professors, nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups.

For those not interested in the religious classes, another subject was created, «civic education,» although pupils could opt for no classes at all.

Only 36.2% of primary parents opted for religious education, while 22.4% opted for civic education, according to the Education Ministry. The rest chose no extra classes. Some 15% of primary schools failed to send in data.

No official data was given for secondary schools, but preliminary results show that a large number of secondary pupils also opted for no classes at all.

The Education Ministry estimated that fewer than 30% of secondary pupils had chosen religious education, with the figure in Belgrade at less than 20%. Serbia´s Religion Ministry considers these low figures a disaster.

«The results of our survey are not completed yet … but we accept the position of ´scapegoat´ and are prepared for any result,» Knezevic declared in a statement by the Education Ministry.

«The Ministry of Education and Sport — identified in advance as the guilty party for the eventual, expected weak response from pupils to religious education — has from the beginning withheld any statements taking sides,» Knezevic´s statement declared. «Our every instruction to school principals contained the sentence: ´You are instructed to be visibly neutral (in decision making),´ which itself called for impartiality.»

Several days before the official figures were made public, the Orthodox Synod issued its strongly worded statement attacking the «injustice» done to the Serbian Orthodox Church and other religious communities.

«The short informative bulletin [about the religion classes] was not distributed evenly … and prominence was given to the bulletins for the alternative subject,» the synod complained. «The period of time given to parents and pupils was only two to three days.»

Likewise, in a statement issued Oct. 1 through the Belgrade Catholic Archdiocese, the bishops´ conference complained that the Education Ministry had failed to fulfill its obligations.

«Pupils and their parents did not receive the bulletins,» the bishops said. «Many school principals and teachers misused their positions to speak against religious education.»

They pointed to what they said was discrimination against Catholics in towns such as Palic, Bogojevo and Senta.

«Injustice has been done to our Church by the false accusations, non-objective statements, and a specific campaign against religious education,» the bishop added. «We support the Orthodox synodal statement in full.»

In the statement, signed by Archbishop Stanislav Hocevar of Belgrade, Bishops Janos Penzes of Subotica, Laszlo Huzsvar of Zrenjanin, and Djuro Gasparovic of Srem and by Archpriest Holosnjaj of the Greek Catholic Diocese in Krizevci, the bishops´ conference demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and an extension of the deadline for enrollment.

Sladjana Popovic, a spokeswoman of the Education Ministry, said: «We have to see what the Cabinet will decide.»

There are 1,239 primary schools in Serbia, of which 323 are in Kosovo, mostly outside the control of the Belgrade government, with about 90,000 first-grade pupils.

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