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News 05 Sep 17

School Prayers Reignite Debate Over Croat Church's Power

As the new school year begins in Croatia, the practice of priests holding prayers for this event has revived a debate over the Church's influence and privileges in the field of state education.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
Cross in a primary school  in Zagreb neighbourhood of Zaprudje. Photo: Youtube screenshot

A debate in Croatia on the role of the powerful Catholic Church has reopened as Catholic priests hold prayers for the new school year in a number of public schools.

However, the country's Science and Education Ministry says any decisions to invite clergy to bless the new school year in schools lie in the hands of school directors, the news site Index reported on Monday.

The ministry has emphasised also that children did not have to attend such ceremonies if they or their parents oppose it or are members of other religious communities.

Entire schools often attend mass or other services in church in Croatia before holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

Critics maintain that children from non-Catholic families often only attend the prayers because of peer pressure or because their parents do not wish their children to stand out.

Just over 86 per cent of people in Croatia define themselves as Catholics, and since independence from Yugoslavia Croatia has signed four concordats with the Holy See, in 1997 and 1998, one of which gave the Church a role in education.

While minority faiths also gained an opportunity to have courses taught in the school curriculum, in practice, these happen less often.

Under the concordats, religious education in public schools is incorporated into the regular class schedule, sometimes causing organisational problems for those pupils not attending them – less than 10 per cent in primary schools.

Since primary schools rarely offer an alternative for pupils not attending religious education classes, these children can end up spending the time during religious classes in libraries and school halls.

In some cases, such children remain present in religious education classes, but do their homework or read book assignments.

Children from the Schedule "Gap" was realised in the project Rights & videotapes, video activism workshop organised by Amnesty International Croatia and Restart. Authors: Antonija Jovanovski and Sven Milekic

Under the concordats, besides the Church receiving around 38 million euros a year from the state, the state also pays around 30 million euros a year to cover the salaries of over 3,000 religious education professors in primary and high schools.

Despite the state paying for the teachers, it is the bishops who decide which teachers get the teaching posts in the school.

The bishops can also axe these teachers. Using this provision, the bishop in the city of Rijeka in 2006 fired teacher Petar Travas for divorcing his first wife and for entering a civil marriage with his second wife.

Travas sued Croatia before the European Court of Human Rights for discrimination and for breaching the right to private and family life, but lost the case in October.

An additional issue for critics is that textbooks for religious education contain claims about atheists that the latter call wholly unacceptable.

“From the experience of the most recent events we know that noble people cannot be brought up without God and against God, while quite often it [atheism] brings forth the kind of people who made Auschwitz,” one textbook reads, referring to the infamous Nazi death camp.

According to UNICEF research from 2009, Croatian pupils between the age of eight and nine who do not attend religious education tend to be those that are the most discriminated against in school.

Some public schools have put up large crucifixes inside school grounds – like one primary school in the Zagreb neighbourhood of Zaprudje where a cross a metre and a half high stands in the central hall.

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