Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Serbia. Media Monitoring August 2001
MEDIA IN SERBIA
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH AND THE INTRODUCTION OF RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
The recent move by the authorities in Belgrade to tackle re-aligned relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and the state, has caused the focus of media coverage to turn to different religion-related topics, notably dilemmas surrounding the re-introduction of religious education to primary and secondary school curricula. In view of the 50-year long promotion of atheism during the communist era, these topics have been addressed in a superficial, amateurish and propaganda-like way by some media - often to the benefit of the Orthodox religion.
The way the authorities and officials have been dealing with the topic has also added fuel to the flames. In their resolve to break with the "obscure Communist past " and to restore "Serbian traditions and roots," many top state officials are attending all public religious meetings -events that are being reported extensively by the media.
This is particularly true of President Kostunica, touted as a very pious man, and close to the Serbian Patriarch Pavle.
In its weekend issue (August 4-5), Daily Danas, which has repeatedly criticised the introduction of religious education to the school curriculum, ran a caricature of President Vojislav Kostunica praying before a photograph of Patriarch Pavle, and Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic praying before a photograph of Microsoft inventor Bill Gates.
Most media concluded that the decision of the government to introduce religious education in primary and secondary schools, made only three weeks after reaching an agreement with representatives of traditional religious denominations and Patriarch Pavle, was hasty and badly prepared.
The decision received both praise and criticism from the wider public. Its supporters argued that it was proof of democratisation, the change in political system, and a return to old, traditional values. Opponents saw it as an imposition of religion, the clericalisation of society and violation of basic human rights and freedoms.
In the columns of many newspapers - mostly in "Letters to the editor" and occasionally in editorials (Vreme and Danas) - arguments for and against the reinstatement of religious education were carried.
In its August 8 commentary, Danas noted, "It is obvious that somewhere a firm political stand was taken that religious education had to be re-introduced to the school curriculum....no arguments could stop those fighting for a new spirituality and make them ponder the appropriateness of their decision....All the counter-arguments went unheeded, and impassioned advocates of a revival of traditional values used favourable political winds to realise their intent..."
The daily Politika on August 4told its readers of an agreement on religious education between high-level Serbian priests in a report headlined, "Unnecessary fear of religious education." On August 19, the daily ran an interview with Patriarch Pavle in which he assessed the move in the following way: "it is an act of democratisation of society and an expression of freedom intended for all the citizens who were deprived of that freedom in the post-WW2 period."
He went on to explain that "the SOC, by re-introducing religious education, gets an opportunity to teach pupils the truth that human beings don't have only a bodily, physical nature, but also a spiritual one, that is, they have their mind, emotions, free will and freedom of choice."
Deputy Education Minister Zarko Mihajlovic told the BETA news agency that religious education and an alternative subject (civil education) would this year make up part of the school curriculum as optional subjects. This means that either pupils or their parents may choose one of these. But in response to this statement, Episcope Irinej of Backa, on behalf of all religious communities, wrote an open letter to the public on August 27, repeating their position that, "either religious education or civil education, as an alternative subject, are mandatory for all pupils in Serbia."
The message of Episcope Irinej, run by all the media, reads: "The decree of the government of Serbia establishes religious education as a regular subject, mandatory for those who select it, and non-mandatory for those who instead opt for the alternative subject."
According to a recent poll (published in Danas on August 29), one third of citizens favour introduction of religious education to the school curriculum, one third is against that move, and one third is undecided, misinformed or poorly informed. Less educated citizens are those who are most in favour of introducing the new school subject.
In several issues this summer, the weekly Vreme, one of the most vocal opponents of a hasty introduction of religious education, covered the dilemmas, denials and protests surrounding the decision. In its 9 August issue, the weekly termed the decision "hazardous, and ill-considered". It also mentioned that the two deputy education ministers were ready to hand in their resignation in protest. Vreme also stressed that "the Ministry of Religions obviously insisted that the subject-matter be introduced in the school system as of September 1 this year."
In its analysis of the current strife within the ruling coalition, Vreme (August 25 issue) carried a well-used photograph of Djindjic and Kostunica holding lit candles at a religious ceremony on its front cover.
In a press release carried by all the mainstream media, Educational Forum, an independent expert group, protested against the "scandalous and arbitrary decision taken by the Serbian Prime Minister ...it is clear that children, teachers and the educational system are victims of a political deal...someone has obviously tried to buy votes, while the leaders of all churches have shown that their primary interest is to become influential in an important part of the public sphere."
The introduction of religious education divided the public in Vojvodina (YU INFO, August 23.) Some Vojvodina politicians think that religious education has been introduced by force and hastily, while other argue that such speculations are unnecessary, since the subject-matter is not tantamount to preaching.
The province, in which 26 nations and 39 religious denominations live, objected very much to the way in which the decision was taken. Father Tadej Vojnovic, Professor at the Faculty of Theology of the Subotica Catholic Bishopric, and one of the leading theological experts in the Balkans, told the BETA news agency on August 28 that the best place for religious education is church and not schools. He added "I fear that religious education would share the fate of Marxism, that it would become a boring and much-hated subject...for its introduction has been religiously and politically motivated."
To public objections that no adequate textbooks are ready, representatives of religious communities responded that that they have prepared excellent programmes of religious education. Minister of Religions Vojislav Milovanovic stated that that the Orthodox cathechism was "superior to other textbooks, for its updated version is well ahead of all reforms." (NIN, August 16)
The daily Glas of August 22 carried an interview with the Education Minister Gasa Knezevic. He stated: "I am fearful... for similar experiences in Croatia and Republika Srpska were tragic...many people abandoned religious education as an optional subject....I hope that we have not made a wrong move. It may be disadvantageous, but if the churches don't think so, I have nothing more to add."
One day later, Glas ran the statement of a Belgrade secondary school director that the approach to some subjects, notably religious education, should be "moderate and very careful." He also noted that, "whether religious education will be taught properly and become an interesting subject depends on its teachers."
The daily Danas of August 28 devoted two pages to informing its readers of the religious education programmes of different religious communities.
On TV BK (August 26), a psychologist stated that "the introduction of religious education can have many negative effects, notably leading to different divisions in school classes...a higher maturity is needed to understand divisions in Christianity."
Most media which have given extensive coverage to this issue consider that the decision to make religious education one of the subjects of this year's school curriculum was not well thought-out, for without good teachers and an adequate syllabus a new form of manipulation may be afoot. According to many journalists, "that move was dictated by the current positioning or jockeying for power of some parties and their leaders, and ...its principal victims shall be children and their poorly informed parents."
Independent media openly criticised the decision, while state-controlled outlets only carried straightforward statements and press releases avoiding taking an explicit stand on the issue. However, some state-controlled media, through their choice of interviewees, timing of reports and wording of headlines, in a deft way agreed with the said decision.
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