By Vesna Peric Zimonjic
BELGRADE, Apr 14 (IPS) - When parents of today's school children went to school, religion was a private matter, something talked about at home or among friends and relatives in communist former Yugoslavia.
Today, children in multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Christian Serbia run into religion the moment they start elementary school, or even kindergarten.
In all three countries, born in the bloody conflict of disintegration of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, religious education is now a part of the curricula. Students take two or three lessons a week, depending on the country.
It is usually an "optional subject", and children receive no grades for it, but it is a popular class in all three countries, with the highest attendance among Catholic Croats in Bosnia and Croatia proper, Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia and Orthodox Serbs in the Serbian part of Bosnia called the Republic of Srpska. Ministries in the three countries do not reveal the actual number of children given religious education, but indicate that the number is high.
In post-war Bosnia or Croatia there is no great dilemma over introduction of such education. In Serbia proper it has sparked much controversy.
Religious education was officially introduced in 2001, to the enthusiasm of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church. But the interest in it dropped after conservative education minister Ljiljana Covic tried to expel Darwinism and the theory of evolution from Serbian schools in 2004 and replace it with Biblical explanations. Widespread public protests led her to resign, and Darwinism continued to be taught.
Sociologist Stjepan Gredelj says attendance at religious education classes in Serbia is less than 35 percent now. "The interest has dropped significantly, and one can say that the expected positive effects of religious education are not here," Gredelj told IPS. "For example, the level of violence and bullying in elementary schools is growing alarmingly each year."
Some 65 percent of elementary school children in Serbia say they have been bullied at least once, according to a 2006 study School without Violence by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"It is not by chance that religious education was introduced in schools, where it should belong," Father Pedja, a priest at the St. Sava church in Serbian capital Belgrade told IPS. "The modern world has placed many challenges before us. It is hard to keep proper orientation, and the Church has many ways of pointing the right direction for one's wandering soul."
"I think it is good for my children to learn about God and principles of faith as early as they could," Maja Stamenkovic, a 34-year-old mother of two told IPS. "They should know who and what they are, maintain the Serbian tradition, and be proud of it. My generation lacked that."
But experts say this new wave has other dimensions. Petar Atanackovic, author of the study Religious Education in Public Schooling says that "churches have begun an ideological offensive to fill the void left by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. In former Yugoslavia, this coincided with the beginning of the wars of the 1990s."
The three-year war in Bosnia had all the characteristics not only of inter-ethnic conflict between its Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, but of a religious clash between Muslims, Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians.
In post-war Bosnia, which introduced religious teaching once the war ended and regulated it by law in 2004, the situation is as complicated as ever. Children attend religious education classes of their own ethnic group -- Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox; few opt for "teaching about religion" that includes teaching on beliefs of all three religions, other major religions, and the position also of atheists.
Fierce debate broke out recently whether religious education should be introduced in kindergartens in Bosnian capital Sarajevo. The national proposal was shelved, but Islamic leader Mustafa Ceric insisted on introducing Islamic teaching for Muslim children.
A 2005 study on religion and schools in the Western Balkans, Religion and Pluralism in Education by a group of Bosniak, Croatian, Serbian and Norwegian authors, points out that "religious teaching in Bosnia is purely confessional, but also strictly national."
The three religions remain entrenched in their own preaching, with little attention to neighbours of different faith. Muslim curricula teaches tolerance of all Muslims, Orthodox curricula is tuned to Serbian history.
"In those two, the prevailing accent is on duty and obedience, while only Catholic curricula speak about the modern world and contemporary issues such as widespread poverty, consumerism, and freedom in general," the study says.
Petar Atanackovic agrees that Orthodox religious teaching in Serbia does not stimulate free expression or initiative among the young.
"In the sense of spiritual or intellectual development, there are no positive effects," he says. "The Church mostly wants obedient, non-critical followers. It does nothing for tolerance in multi-ethnic surroundings, such as in the northern province of Vojvodina, where there are large ethnically mixed communities of Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and Slovaks. That is not a precondition for the development of democratic society." Miroslav Mladenovic, a mathematics teacher from the southern Serbia town Vlasotince, has appealed to the authorities to leave religion out of schools.
Young people have problems and tasks of life to solve," Mladenovic wrote in the prominent Politika daily. "We're not going to have a young generation of computer literate and soberly thinking young people if their heads remain dug into the history and the past the Church teaches." (END/2008)
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