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South Slavic: January 25, 2001

25 January 2001, Volume 3, Number 3

Religious Instruction In Yugoslavia's State Schools?

Part II. Part I appeared on 18 January 2001.

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss whether religious instruction should be introduced in state schools. Our guests are Olga Popovic-Obradovic, professor of national history at the Faculty of Law in Belgrade, and Bogoljub Sijakovic, minister of religions of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Bogoljub Sijakovic: I think we should use a comparison in order to find our own solution. This is why I was referring to the solutions in some other countries. At the same time, I said that we should return to our own traditions in order to revive them again in accordance with contemporary democratic principles of the civilized world, based on the rule of law.

However, I fear that the United States of America cannot be an element of the comparison because there are too many differences between us and that country, which I would rather not discuss now. If there are national churches in England, Scandinavia, and Greece, I do not see a reason why there should not be another one in a country with the same or similar circumstances.

Mrs. Popovic, I cannot agree with you that religious instruction would incite religious conflicts, and I especially disagree when you blame religions for the civil wars in Yugoslavia. It seems to me that we could rather talk about the abuse of religion and religious feelings by the state or by the emerging states, i.e. by the political elite that wanted to create those states. We are talking here about the abuse of religion by politics. At the same time, I am not sure that it is entirely proper to associate genocide with any religion of this region. I would not dare to openly claim such a thing unless I had very strong empiric evidence.

As far as intolerance is concerned, I think that there has been intolerance in the Balkans, but I also find the genesis of that intolerance more interesting. One should determine to what extent the international factor was involved in the Balkan conflicts, because it certainly was. If it is true that the Balkans is a region of religious intolerance and fanaticism, then one should explain why there are so many religions and nations here.

And, finally, one more thing. As a religious person who belongs to a religious community, I pay taxes to my state. Education, as well as the state media, is financed with that money. As a religious person who pays taxes, I want to see myself [represented] in all structures of the state. I have the right to that. If the concept of the state that you advocate remains, then the taxes for the faithful should be cut.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: There is no doubt about one thing, and I cannot stop stressing it. A modern state is a secular state, which means that the church and state are separate. In that context religious education belongs to the religious community, and this is no issue for me. Therefore, one can hardly talk about the introduction of religious instruction in state schools without a previous modification of the Constitution...

I would remind Mr. Sijakovic that we should not talk only about one tradition. There is no doubt that in Serbia the Serbian Orthodox Church had the longest history of being united with the state. However, I will remind you that a pure form of that existed only in the Kingdom of Serbia, until the unification and creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes [in 1918]. As early as in that first Yugoslav state, they had to face the problem of redefinition of that relationship, since the new state was based on three big churches and three big religions. The state had to face the problem of separation of church and state...

The issue of the separation of church and state in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was not resolved... That is one part of our tradition.

Another part of it is some 50 years of the secular state. I do not understand how somebody who is serious about the role of tradition can simply erase five or more decades of our living in a secular state. Entire generations were brought up in the spirit of secularism. Do you not think that these generations have their citizens' rights, too, and that it is one of the traditions the [Serbian] people has acquired during its history?

One cannot simply erase the legacy of entire epochs of history whenever someone feels like it. There are different traditions, different experiences, and if we thought that an epoch of our history should be erased every time the regime is changed, we -- as a nation with so many changes and revolutions -- would have to erase our entire modern history. That was done back in 1903, 1918, 1945, 1989, and that is being done in 2000...

Bogoljub Sijakovic: The point is that the state has very precise responsibilities concerning religion, and it has precise responsibilities towards its citizens who are faithful, no matter what their denomination. You keep talking about the separation of church and state, about a secular state, about how religious instruction has no place in state schools in such a state. And I keep telling you that there are democratic and secular states in which state and church are separate, but there is religious instruction in state schools there...

You were talking about 50 years of living in a secular state, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but I do not consider that state secular. That was a communist state, with a strong communist ideology in all strata and structures of national, social, cultural, and political life. This is why I would not call that state secular. I would rather call it a quasi-idolatrous or quasi-religious state that had suspended the right to religious expression as well as to religious education. It introduced Marxism and Marxist ideology as a compulsory school subjects.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: Let me remind you that not every ideology has a religious character. Ideologies can have different characters, just like indoctrination can have different characters: it can be a religious one, but it can also be based on acceptance of another sort of dogma, like, for instance, the communist one.

Bogoljub Sijakovic: I cannot accept the thesis about religious indoctrination. There is religious indoctrination only when the power structures use or abuse religion. I am convinced that many bad and offensive things would have been avoided if the churches or religious communities of the Balkans and in our country had decided the destiny of the country, and if the faithful had been consulted. I have immense confidence in every man who is a genuine believer, no matter what religion...

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: But you still do not want to answer my question -- why the state should guarantee religious instruction in state schools? Why is it not enough that parents and their children meet their need for religious education in religious institutions? If religious instruction is introduced in state schools, then I ask you what will be the consequences when children are taught that God has created the world -- since religion is based on the idea of a God as a creator -- while another teacher will teach them Darwin's theory of the origin of the universe...

What confusion that will create in a child's mind! I really do not see a reason why children should be put in such a situation. If religious education and instruction is the private matter of an individual and his family, why do not we leave it to them? I would really like to hear an answer to this question.

Bogoljub Sijakovic: I think that I have already answered that question. But, well, let me say it now explicitly. When I say that the state must guarantee the right to religious instruction in state schools, I am talking about the state that wants to call itself law-abiding and democratic. It is a state that respects the fact that citizens who are believers live there, too.

I might quote international conventions that deal with that right like, for example, the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights (1966) that talks about religious instruction in schools, or the final document of the CSCE's Copenhagen Conference on the Human Dimension (1990), where it is explicitly said that through religious instruction in schools, the state guarantees the right to religious expression.

I do not agree with what you said about the confusion that religious instruction could bring to pupil's minds. There are many disputes in modern physics, biology, and astrophysics. There are, for instance, creationists who maintain that the world was made in a short period of time and that the creation of the cosmos cannot be explained by the theory of evolution...

Furthermore, I would like to remind you that the famous physicist and Nobel Prize-winner Heisenberg was a believer and, trust me, he was not confused at all in his scholarly work.

Omer Karabeg: And finally, your conclusion, Mrs. Popovic, and then we will hear Mr. Sijakovic.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: I think that the secular state is one of the most important achievements of modern society and the modern state. To reject it would mean to reject one of the most positive experiences we have had in the last 60 years.

It does not matter at all whether the secular state was inaugurated in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; what does matter is that the principle was adopted. The fact that it was adopted here simultaneously with the introduction of the communist regime does not undermine the value of the principle.

So, if we stick to the concept of a secular state -- and I think that we should -- then there is no place for religious instruction in state schools; it belongs in the religious communities. Religious instruction, together with religion, have to remain a private matter for every individual...

Bogoljub Sijakovic: The faithful do not need the right to religious expression, they will be faithful no matter what the state says. The faithful have survived and preserved their religion in the most difficult of circumstances, even when the Romans were throwing them to lions in the arena. All the faithful need is a precise framework for the expression of their religion and for the work of their religious communities, like the one that exists in all democratic states.

The separation of church and state as a formal principle, with no content at all, is of no help here. Secular and democratic states of the modern world, civilized and based on the rule of law, do have religious instruction in state schools. I think that it should also be so in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.