The process of desecularization has taken place in the post-communist countries in the last twenty years. In Serbia, a part of this process resulted in the restoration of religious education in public schools. It was a complex process due to historical, sociological, theological and juridical background in the given circumstances. Serbia, a country in transition with the remnants of the old communist regime in its state apparatus, is also multinational and multi-confessional, still feeling the consequences of the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia. All these aspects also contributed to the complexity of the research. However, the greatest obstacle in exploring the subject is the lack of literature regarding this process which started only ten years ago.
Religious Education in Public Schools of the European Union
Unification of the old continent – Europe – began primarily with the creation of a common economic space, and then harmonized political, security, educational and legal systems, which are formally and legally ratified in the Constitution of the European Union. This process was not an easy one because the members of the European Parliaments had to resolve many issues in various fields. Prior to the adoption of the Constitution of Europe, they discussed the role and status of Christian churches in the European Union (EU).
On this occasion, Pope John Paul II stressed that “Europe is based on Christian roots that penetrate the European continent to these days”. This conclusion made by the Vatican was supported by the Greek Orthodox Church, which required that “the EU Constitution with its contents shows respect for the collective consciousness of European peoples to their Christian roots”. The intent of Christian dignitaries was historically, culturally and theologically justified, but it was accepted in different ways in different member states. However, the final decision of the European parliamentarians failed to comply with the proposal of the Christian churches; the first EU Constitution inserted a provision that emphasized “drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”.That provision does not mention Christianity as the European states have made a compromise with the multi-religious mosaic of contemporary Europe.
The European Union has maintained a similar approach for other religious issues, which were linked with state institutions. A particular challenge was the religious education, or more precisely, its programs and objectives in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Europe. From the perspective of intercultural education, the Council of Europe recommended that the contents of all disciplinary subjects and therefore religious education be free of ideological rigidity and totalitarianism. The importance and essence of religious education is reduced to a practical level with a focus on emphasizing the coexistence and harmony between different European nations. In addition, the Council of Europe recommended some common values as the main content of religious education which is: democracy, tolerance, dialogue, ecumenism, religious and cultural pluralism.
Religious classes are differently organized and represented in the educational systems of EU member states. Theology of the character and legal status of the course are aligned with the political and social order, traditions, culture, demographic conditions and characteristics of the local education system. Depending on the educational systems of EU member states there are three general characters of religious education: optional, alternative (a choice between two courses), and obligatory. It is interesting that in secondary schools in countries with centuries of Catholic tradition - Italy, Spain and Portugal - religious education is optional, whereas in non-Catholic countries such as Austria, Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, Holland and Greece, it is a compulsory subject with no alternative.
The Role of the Serbian Government in the Renewal of Religious Education in Public Schools
The last remnants of communist regimes and Marxist ideology were removed from power in Serbia within weeks of demonstrations by the Serbian people in late 2000. Before that, for five decades, Serbia was ruled by ideology or “religion of Marxism”, which discriminated rights of traditional religious communities and, above all, the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has the most believers in the State.
The beginning of democratic change was announced by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who launched the resolution of religious issues in Serbia. The first step was a meeting between him and representatives of the seven largest religious communities. On that occasion, an agreement was reached that religious education be re-introduced in state schools as an optional subject from September 1, 2001. Djindjic said: “Parents will be able to freely decide whether their children will attend this subject or another subject to be defined by the Ministry of Education”. The same day, the Government Commission for Organization and implementation of religious education was formed. It was composed of all major religious communities in Serbia (one representative for each community), and three representatives of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Serbia. The main task of the Government Commission was to monitor the implementation of the plan. The Government of Serbia adopted the Decree on organization and implementation of religious education and teaching of alternative subject on July 24, 2001. This Decree was published in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia № 46/2001 on July 27, 2001.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Serbia has drafted a law on religious freedom, which was consistent with European standards and multi-religious specificities of Serbia. Minister of Religion Vojislav Milovanovic, stressed that the lawmakers “foresaw the Byzantine form of independence of church and state but also the concept of mutual symphony or harmony with the interest of all citizens”. The principle of neutrality is reflected in the fact that there is no state religion, which emphasized respect for all traditional churches and religious communities. A special article of the law defined religious education which was supposed to be introduced in 2001. On that occasion, the Minister V. Milovanovic addressed the opponents of the introduction of religious education in the following way: “I see no reason why the opponents with such fierceness address the public”. He stressed that religious education is a possibility of achieving human rights and religious freedom for those who want it, and “those who do not want it can simply not send their children to religious education”. Serbian Patriarch Pavle described the return of religious education in elementary and secondary public schools as “an act of democratization of society and the freedoms of citizens and believers, which in post-war time was taken away”. According to him, the return of religion in schools will enable the children to learn about the truth that people are physical and spiritual beings endowed with mind, heart, will and freedom in decision making. The Patriarch then informed the public that religious education in the first grade of elementary and secondary schools will be taught by priests, by the graduates of the Theological Faculty of the Institute, as well as teachers from seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions.
Before the start of the new school year 2001-2002 with religious education as a new subject, Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Education printed a special brochure entitled “Religious Education in Serbia”. This brochure was designed for parents, who had to complete a questionnaire, and their children were supposed to decide whether they wished to attend the new subject. The brochure stated that the students in the classes of religious education will be able “to hear answers to questions about the meaning of man's existence, the world and human freedom”, to “get to know art, music and literature that is unthinkable without a religious foundation and content”, and to understand “that the conflict between science and religion does not exist” because “almost 90 percent of top scientists are religious people”.
Credit to the Serbian Government for the return of religious education in Serbian schools was also expressed by foreign state and religious representatives. The greatest honor was the support from the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, who visited the Serbian Orthodox Church and met with many representatives of the Yugoslav state. He was received by the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic; also attending was the Serbian Patriarch Pavle. On this occasion, Archbishop Christodoulos congratulated the Serbian Prime Minister for the return of religious studies to the educational system of Serbia. The main topic of the meeting was the political and economic reconstruction of society. It was concluded that the reconstruction is impossible without the ethical and moral renewal; the interlocutors were unanimous about these findings.
Minister of Education G. Knezevic, Minister of Religion V. Milovanovic and representatives of traditional churches and religious communities have expressed satisfaction with the re-introduction of religious education in public elementary and high schools, a symbolic beginning of the lecture was October 31, 2001. At a joint press conference, Minister of Religion V. Milovanovic said that after 55 years of waiting and nine months of hard work this aspect of human freedom is again finding its place in Serbia. He pointed out that religious education was elected by 80,000 students, of which 80 percent were Orthodox, seven or eight percent Muslims, two percent Catholics, and others were members of other religious communities.
On the same occasion, Minister of Education G. Knezevic said that the introduction of two new subjects was a big undertaking. He reiterated that technical issues have been resolved and that the lectures in Religious Studies and in Civic Studies should commence November 1, 2001.
Many politicians were included in the process of restoring religious education in state schools in Serbia, but the fact is that the Serbian government's decision was not political, but rather of a social character. Before World War II, religious education was taught in public schools by the teachers of the Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant religions, etc. In Serbia, religious education is an expression of the right to freedom of worship and multi-religious society. Before the return of religion in Serbian schools, some politicians fought against the idea, and later tried to ruin the reputation and importance of the process. Some media reported a part of the interview Cedomir Jovanovic, the former Serbian deputy prime minister, gave to television “B92” in April 2005. He gave several statements that were linked to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), and its representatives. According to its official announcement (April 11, 2005), the SOC evaluated Jovanovic’s statements as lies, wholly and in every detail. Specifically, the SOC Information Service has denied the claims made by Jovanovic, who had previously stated that he was involved in the process of reinstating religious education in public schools. The SOC deemed Jovanovic’s statement that the return of religious education was somehow “traded” for the silence on the main Hague prisoner, as untrue. The same press release points out that the most enthusiasm for finding the best solutions for religious education was demonstrated by the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, along with former Minister of Religion Affairs V. Milovanovic. This public report revealed some interesting details about the impact of the Serbian government upon the restoration of religious education in schools. It emphasized that the preliminary agreement on return of religious education was made at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which was held July 4, 2001 in the Patriarchal Palace in Belgrade. That session was attended by some hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Prime Minister Z. Djindjic together with the Minister of Religion Affairs V. Milovanovic. A concrete agreement was reached on the following day, July 5, 2001, at the meeting of the Serbian government and representatives of traditional churches and religious communities.
Statusof Religious Education in the Public Schools of Serbia
The status of religious education and the alternative course became a hot topic before the start of the new school year 2001/2002. Namely, there was a disagreement over the status of the two subjects due to different interpretations of the Decree of the Serbian Government on the introduction of religious education and alternative course. There is no logical explanation for the misunderstanding that occurred because there were contacts and meetings between representatives of the Serbian Government, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education and representatives of traditional churches and religious communities.
In fact there were two opposing ideas in the Serbian government, an idea supported by the Ministry of Education, and another idea, represented by the Ministry of Religion Affairs. Traditional churches and religious communities have shared the opinion of the Ministry of Religion regarding the status of religious education and other matters related to this.
According to initial findings of journalists and publications, religious education and the alternative subject, whose content should be “democracy, tolerance and human rights”, would not be mandatory, but rather electives. This meant that children and parents could adopt one of two offered courses, or none. However, children enrolled in one of the two subjects would be required to study the course till the end of the school year. Grades would be descriptive and should not affect the ultimate success of students. This is how the Ministry of Education interpreted the Decree of the Government on the introduction of religious education and alternative subject in public schools. The Ministry of Education considered this to be the only legitimate way to introduce a new subject but also the way to compromise with public criticism of “imposition” of religion education.
Of a contrary opinion was the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which noted that religious education and alternative subject are not optional courses but rather electives. Then the Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs Zivojin Stjepic addressed the public explaining the difference between the elective and optional. He explained that the Government's Decree presumed that a choice has to be made between religious education and the alternative course as an elective subject. However, it remained unclear what kind of difference there was in practice.
On the occasion of the introduction of religious education and the question of its status the Serbian Patriarch met with the Minister of Religion V. Milovanovic and Minister of Education and Sport G. Knezevic. The report of the Information Service of the SOC from that meeting states that representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Government, and National Assembly of Serbia “agreed to a way of resolving operational and technical issues in the joint jurisdiction, which is a regular and planned activity in the process of restoring religious education”.
Before the start of the new school year, the status of religious education was still uncertain because of various contradicting statements coming from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Education, as well as from some bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
First, there was an official statement of the Minister of Education G. Knezevic, who at the meeting with teachers in region of Jablanica denied earlier statements from the Ministry of Religious Affairs on the status of religious education. He reiterated that religious education should be an elective subject in the first school year. He confirmed earlier unofficial information that the teaching of religious education will not begin before September 15, 2001. On the same occasion the different views on religious education between the Ministry of Education and the SOC were revealed. Specifically, the SOC requested that religious education begins from the first grade, but the proposal of the Ministry of Education was to start with the older grades (fifth, sixth or seventh). The disagreements were on the date (school year) of introduction of religious education in the public schools but the Church did not allow the process to be postponed.
After various statements were made by government officials on the status of religious education, the criticism made by the bishop of the SOC, endorsed by representatives of other religious communities, followed. Among the first, Bishop of Backa Irinej (SOC), reiterated the view that the choice between the two new courses is compulsory for the students and there is no option that they do not accept it. He pointed out that this is the position of all religious communities and churches and sharply criticized the Ministry of Education for the opposite position, which had already been made public. On that occasion, Bishop Irinej referred to the Decree of the Government of Serbia and added that the monitoring process, organization and implementation of religious education, and in this context the discussion over its optional character, were exclusively within the scope of work already done by the Working Committee. He said that “the Serbian Government Decree returned the religious education as a regular subject. Selecting none of the two newly introduced alternative courses does not exist in the Decree—it exists only in the imagination and desires of certain assistants to the Minister of Education, as well as some propagandists of atheism”. Bishop Irinej signed this letter on behalf of the authorized representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, the Islamic Community of Serbia, the Slovak Evangelical Church, the Evangelical Christian Church, the Reformed Church, and the Jewish Community.
This statement shows that the Church doubted the intention of the Ministry of Education, believing that the work of the Ministry was influenced by the Marxists and atheist-minded leadership, which has persisted in the state apparatus. They pressured the official position of the Ministry of Education which displayed a hypocritical attitude towards the representatives of traditional churches and religious communities.
Since there were opposing views by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Religious Affairs on the status of religious education, the public was addressed by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Zarko Korac. He pointed out that the Serbian government Decree could only be interpreted by the then applicable law on primary and secondary schools. This meant that the initial status of religious education should be optional. He explained that at the time the law did not permit the introduction of additional classes because the norm regarding the number of working hours was already fulfilled. Otherwise, parents would have the legal right to sue the school for overloading the children. Deputy Prime Minister reiterated that until there was a change in the laws on primary and secondary schools, the new item should be optional and that a change in the status of new subjects was possible for the second half of the school year.
A new school year 2001-2002 started. The debate over the status of religious education was still in progress in Serbia. The schools were not able to obtain accurate information about the status of the subject, so the students and their parents were confused about the whole situation. Since the public was exposed to different interpretations of the laws, two blocks of "supporters" were created: those who wanted religious education to be compulsory and those who wanted it to be optional.
The Ministry of Education has confirmed on national television their previous view that religious education is optional in character. However, Serbian Prime Minister Z. Djindjic was not happy with developments. He stated that there were some misunderstandings about the status of two new subjects, but the essence remained the same, parents could choose for their children religious education or alternative subject. In the same statement he stressed that the new laws will be adopted which would define the choice between the courses as mandatory. Djindjic was very clear in his statements and he pointed out the following: “It would be important to understand that by introducing the religious education we enriched the possibilities and choices for our people. And choosing nothing – that option exists when there is no state, no civilization, it exists only in the jungle”. His intention was clear and correct, because the old laws were the main cause of misunderstanding. The most important point made by Prime Minister Djindjic was that all obstacles will be overcome in the process of reintroducing religious education into state schools in Serbia. It was a clear message to the opponents of religious education. And it was also clear that getting rid of the old law was just a matter of time.
Church circles believed that the Ministry of Education hindered the process of restoring religious and alternative course in Serbian schools. This is evident in the statement of Bishop Ignatije (SOC), which directly accused the Serbian Ministry of Education of “fighting all this time against religion”. In the local newspaper The Word of the People, he reiterated that there was a different agreement between the Serbian government and the traditional churches and religious communities than the one presented by the Ministry of Education. The question is whether the suspicion and criticism from some representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church were justified? Only nine years later the Serbian public learned that the Church was right. The fact was that the change from a "socialist" to a democratic system did not mean a change in the entire state apparatus.
Seven days after the beginning of the school year the fourth meeting of the Commission by the Government of Serbia to organize religious education was held in Novi Sad. The Ministry of Religious Affairs had announced that the theme of the meeting was the procedure for the returning of religious education to public schools. From the same press release one can find out that the meeting aimed at resolving “primarily organizational and technical tasks in the process of reintroducing of religious education, especially to those resulting from the fact that the school year has begun”. The representatives of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Religion Affairs and of all traditional churches and religious communities were present at the meeting. According to the media, an anonymous representative of one of the churches stated that the main topic of the meeting was the question of the status of two new subjects - if the courses would be mandatory for the students who opt for them, if there would be an option to select both at the same time, or neither.
The final position of the Government was that religious education for first grade students in elementary and secondary schools is to begin on October 1, 2001, by which time the students and parents should opt for one of two courses offered. At the press conference, Minister of Education G. Knezevic said that under the law, at the time, students were able to attend religious or civic upbringing, both subjects together, or none. He explained that “in the appointments of the teachers for the religious education the voice of the church will be listened to”. Traditional churches and religious communities had their autonomy in choosing the teaching staff, but approval was also required by the Ministry of Education. In reality, religious leaders were independent in decisions regarding the selection of religious teachers and textbooks all until 2009.
Despite considerable controversies, protests, criticism and irregularities observed during the process of restoring religious education in Serbian schools, the classes started on November 1st 2001.
The most important information was followed by the Minister of Education G. Knezevic, who on October 31st 2001, stated that he had reached an agreement with the Prime Minister Z. Djindjic that in the next school year (2003-2004), the option to choose one of the two courses (religious education and civil education as its alternative) will be mandatory. On that occasion, representatives of traditional churches and religious communities expressed their general satisfaction with the additions that they are just at the beginning and not at the end of this fundamental spiritual process.
According to legislation, teaching staff for religious education in high schools must have a degree in theology or in social sciences. For the teachers of religious education in primary schools a secondary diploma of higher education (equal to a college diploma) was sufficient. (Official Gazette. First L, № 5, 10/20/2001).
In mid 2002, the National Assembly of Serbia adopted a provision that the status of Religious Education and Civic Upbringing in primary and secondary schools changed from an optional to a mandatory choice.
The two new courses were introduced among other compulsory or elective courses, and till 2004 a student was in a position to make a fresh choice between them in each school year. Under the new legal rules, however, parents and children had a choice between the two subjects but once the choice was made, the selected subject was required to be taught for a minimum of four years. In reality, for elementary students it meant that they had to make a choice between the two courses in first grade and then again in fifth. The marks were descriptive and defined like this: satisfactory, successful and outstanding.
Ministry of Education prepared training programs for teachers of Religious Education in primary and secondary schools. The initiative was launched by the Serbian Government Commission for Religious Education, whose members were involved in designing the program, while the professional services of the Ministry created the training. The complete program was presented in Belgrade in 2005.
Since 2009, the status of mandatory elective subjects was assigned to: Civic Upbringing or Religious Education, and to Second Foreign Language or Sport of Student's choice. Traditional churches and religious communities had their lists of candidates for religious education teachers and the lists were sent to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and from there to the Ministry of Education. In 2009 a new law was passed which allows religious leaders to nominate candidates but the Ministry of Education still have the final saying in selection and recruitment.
The Writing of Textbooksfor ReligiousEducation
One important task of the representatives of traditional churches and religious communities was to develop textbooks for religious education. It was a big challenge, which had to be resolved in a relatively short time. At the same time, the project was challenged by various organizations, and most of those fought for the secularization of the state and the rights of women.
Religious education textbooks should have been ready by mid-September and the beginning of teaching religion or the alternative course was expected in October 2001. However, the Ministry of Education has announced that proposals for textbooks were not yet submitted, nor have the lists with the names of religious teachers. On that occasion, according to Z. Stjepic, Assistant Minister for Religious Affairs, manuscripts of textbooks for religious education for all faiths and the lists of names for the religion teachers should have been ready and submitted to the Ministry of Education by the end of August 2001.
Ministry of Religious Affairs handed over to the Ministry of Education for verification and approval of textbooks for religious education before the deadline, on August 23, 2001. A special commission from the Ministry of Education was tasked with the start of the new school year, to check and verify whether the textbooks for religious education were in accordance with the curriculum of the Ministry.
In a public address Bishop Irinej (SOC) pointed out the success of the traditional churches and religious communities, who were able to develop and deliver curricula, and to produce textbooks and lists of candidates for religious teachers in less than two months. He repeated the offers from the representatives of traditional churches and religious communities to provide assistance to the Ministry of Education for the preparation of curriculum for the alternative subject.
According to the information from “Blic” newspaper, the religious textbooks prepared by the SOC for primary and secondary schools began being published in late October 2001. The Catholic Church asked for the translation of their books to Hungarian, Croatian and Romanian. The Islamic community has just sent a new version of the textbook for approval. Other religious communities have not yet sent proposals for textbooks. Printing of textbooks for the Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim students should have been completed by mid November 2001.
Great progress in inter-religious cooperation was reached between traditional churches and religious communities with a common agreement on mutual checks and reviews of textbooks for religious education. This agreement was honored. A special success was achieved when all accepted that two or three of total of 29 units be devoted to different faiths.
Since 2002, the Serbian parliament through an amendment confirmed the right of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Islamic Community, the Catholic Church, the Slovak Evangelical, Jewish Community, the Reformed Christian Church and the Evangelical Christian Church to influence the selection of textbooks for religious education. On the same occasion, the Parliament adopted a provision in primary and high schools to ban the activities which endangered or disparaged students because of their racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious background and political affiliation.