BALKANS: Religion Makes a Worrying Call

Global Geopolitics Net Sites / IPS

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, May 11 (IPS) – Five-year-old Admir does not come from a Muslim family, and so among the early lessons he is learning in school in Sarajevo is that he is out while most others are in.

“People say nothing bad can be learnt in religious classes, they are harmless,” Admir’s father Meho Adisovic from Sarajevo told IPS over the phone. “However, Admir is not attending as we are not believers. The only lesson he learns now, unfortunately, is exclusion, together with a Serb and a Croat boy who are excluded from those (Muslim) classes.”

Despite sharp protests, Islamic religious teaching officially began in pre- school institutions in Sarajevo in autumn 2008. Head of the public kindergarten network Arzija Mahmutovic said “there were not enough Orthodox or Catholic children” for other religious classes to be organised.

Earlier in 2001, Mahmutovic excluded ‘Father Frost’, a communist era parallel to Santa Claus, from Sarajevo kindergartens as “Western propaganda”. Since the end of the 1992-95 war, the Bosnian capital has become almost exclusively Muslim, even though Bosnia has constitutional provisions for Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and the country of four million has a Muslim- Croat entity and a Serb entity, the Republika Srpska.

Across the region, all three peoples are making elaborate efforts to bring children up in their separate faiths; Serbs in the Orthodox Christian faith, and Croats in Catholic Christianity. Little is taught about one another’s beliefs.

The practice could lead to an explosive political situation, as it has in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, so called because Greece objects to use of the Hellenic name Macedonia for the country. The constitutional court there has banned religious teaching in schools.

This led to massive protests organised by the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox are the majority in a nation of two million, with Muslim Albanians making up most of the rest. The religious divide remains a potentially explosive issue across former Yugoslavia.

“Ethnicity as well as undertones of religion contributed to the conflicts in the region, where people have deeply suffered atrocities, violence and wars,” Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani human rights campaigner who is UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion told IPS while on a fact-finding mission to the region this week.

The wars of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia were fought between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Bosniak Muslims and ethnic Albanians also of Muslim faith. The wars took more than 150,000 lives, and deeply divided the region.

Today religions remain deep-rooted in their own preaching, and are looking to keep their ways entrenched for the future. Muslim curriculum teaches tolerance among Muslims, the Orthodox are tuned to Serbian history. Only the Catholic curriculum speaks about contemporary issues such as poverty or consumerism, according to a 2005 study by a group of Bosniak, Croatian, Serbian and Norwegian authors.

Many parents in Serbia consider religious education for their children a good thing. “I wanted my daughter to learn the Serb tradition and know more than me, as I grew up in communism, not knowing a thing about Orthodoxy,” Mirjana Vasovic told IPS. “She is attending religious classes and now teaches me what is what, and why some ceremonial things are important. I have learned and discovered many things now.”

But a study on Religious Education in Public Schooling in Serbia compiled in 2007 warned of dangers beyond the difficulty that “religious teaching has had a devastating influence against ideas of tolerance, critical thinking and other values of civil society.”

The study warned that “school psychologists and parents are witnessing a substantial rise of fears and nightmares among children, who are afraid now of hell, sickening events that occurred to saints, or the wrath of God.”

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