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Feature 06 Oct 16

Croats Uneasy Over Church Role in Kindergartens

Experts and parents in Croatia are split on whether the powerful Catholic Church should have a role in the nation’s pre-schools.

Sven Milekic
Illustration. Photo: Flickr/Marco Capitanio

The Croatian government’s recent promotion of the importance of religious education in kindergartens has left many parents, even in this staunchly Catholic country, feeling divided.

“There should be no religious education or upbringing at all in public schools and kindergartens,” one mother called Iva told BIRN.

She said it should be organised within religious communities and the government should not be promoting it.

However, another Croatian mother, 29-year-old Karolina, does not see a problem.

“This is primarily an issue of free choice. If parents want it, why shouldn’t a class be formed, just like for groups learning English? I don’t see any harm in having such a group for an hour so, where they learn about religion and culture through songs and games,” she told BIRN.

Jelena, another mother, aged 31, told BIRN that she has no problems with the Church having a role in schools - but is a lot less sure about whether this should be same in kindergartens.

“One of my three children goes to religious education in school, but I am not sure if small children should be introduced to it,” she said.

These women were sharing their feelings following the government’s promotion of the “Lifelong Studying Week” on Twitter. It has also been promoting the importance of the Catholic religion in pre-schools and kindergartens.

According to the last available data, Catholic religious upbringing is undertaken in 295 of the 435 public kindergartens in Croatia.

Alan Soric,a legal expert from the secularist NGO, Protagora, says he sees “nothing wrong with someone wanting to bring up their child in accordance with their faith.

“But when the government gets involved, we’re talking about breaching secularism.

“It is promoting the religious education of only one religion and it does not serve a secular purpose,” he told BIRN.

Branko Ancic, an educational expert for the Zagreb Institute for Social Research, told BIRN that in a secular country like Croatia, the government should not promote ideas or classes that either offend or discriminate against non-Catholics and non-believers.

Instead of offering a religious upbringing in public schools and kindergartens, children should be instructed in religious culture – learning about all religions from a neutral position, he says.

“Such an education could be introduced in consultation with psychologists and pedagogues as a general course on religions,” he adds.

The Catholic Church has always had a strong social and political influence in post-independence war Croatia.

Churchgoers may be a minority but the vast majority of citizens consider themselves Catholics in some sense.

According to the 2011 census, 86.28 per cent of Croatians define themselves as Catholics, with Orthodox believers at 4.44 per cent. Only 3.81 per cent defined themselves as atheists.

Catholic religious education was officially restored in Croatia after a series of concordats that right-wing governments signed with the Holy See in 1997-98.

Government tweet promoting religion upbringing in kindergartens. Photo: Facebook/Centar za gradjansku hrabrost

These gave the Church an important role in education and culture. While minority faiths also gained an opportunity to have courses taught in the school curriculum, in practice they happen less often.

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

The concordats also offered generous state funding for the Church and for its activities.

As a result, the Catholic Church receives around 38 million euros a year directly from the budget, and a much larger sum, an additional 90 million euros indirectly.

This goes on salaries for religious education teachers, on priests’ services in hospitals, prisons and the military, on the renovation of churches and monasteries and on compensation to the Church for property seized by the communist regime in Yugoslavia after World War II.

Some NGOs estimate that, from 1996 to 2013, the Croatian state paid more than 1.1 billion euros to the Catholic Church.

“Its [the Church’s] influence is massive, much more than we think,” Soric explains, talking about the influence of the Church on the state and on the education system is particular.

“We analysed the content of school textbooks, which showed a lot of religious content in a lot of non-religious courses, such as on Croatian language, music and arts, and history, he pointed out.

Theologian Drago Pilsel told BIRN that questions about religious upbringing in schools contained a real dilemma.

“On one side, we have the right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with their faith, and on the other side we have the right of parents not to have their children discriminated against, and the right to have a secular kindergarten education,” he said.

Pilsel agrees that while a religious upbringing may be “good for parents who want to bring up their children in the faith and get support for that in kindergarten, it is problematic for parents who don’t want it.

“I think a religious upbringing, implemented in the form of religious education classes, can cause discrimination against the minority of children not attending them.

A small child cannot understand such treatment, and this can cause a lot of frustration,” he explained.

According to Pilsel, the Church itself could organise religious upbringing, as it used to in the late-1980s and early 1990s, so that is not all down to the state.

Besides offering Catholic upbringing and education, it is common now for Catholic priests to bless public schools at the beginning of a school year.

Clergy hold services in school grounds, as well as masses in nearby churches attended by pupils with their teachers and directors.

Soric said Catholic religious services are often incorporated into the regular school schedules.

I don’t have any problem with somebody wanting his child to start the new school year with a prayer,” he said.

“But that should be done outside the regular schedule, so that the others can avoid it without creating problems,” he concluded.

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