BELGRADE -- Staunch religious and political conservatives have teamed up to challenge Serbia's recently revamped school curriculum over descriptions of gender and sexual identity, sparking a formal review that could result in a textbook ban.
From biology to history and sociology, the Serbian Orthodox Church and a fringe right-wing party have demanded the replacement of textbooks they say "promote LGBT ideology."
As a result, Serbia's education minister is awaiting a recommendation from the National Education Council on the scientific soundness of the materials but also on whether it serves the "national interest" to present such ideas to schoolchildren.
Educators and members of Serbia's beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community warn that it's part of an accelerating trend of official surrender to the clergy and nationalists seeking to censor and "dehumanize" entire segments of the population.
Moreover, they question what "LGBT ideology" even means. "They want to dehumanize us with that phrase," Ana Petrovic, a queer woman who lives in Belgrade, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
"It's loud right-wing propaganda that causes us great harm and behind which there's no genuine argument hidden," said Petrovic, who works for the Da Se Zna NGO, which provides psychological and legal support to the LGBT community. "In reality, we are how we are, and we're citizens of this country."
Other critics say the textbook challenge is part of a battle to preserve a church-state divide in the face of an "increasingly extensive clericalization" that threatens to leave whole generations ill-prepared for life in a rapidly changing world.
'Not Propagated By God'
The textbook controversy gained steam as Serbian opposition arose this summer to an international parade to express LGBT pride that was scheduled to take place in Belgrade as part of EuroPride week on September 12-18.
On September 11, with members of his clergy in lockstep with the anti-Pride protests, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Porfirije appealed publicly for the withdrawal of an eighth-grade biology textbook.
He said the book, introduced a year earlier under sweeping curricular reforms mandated in 2017, "imposes an unacceptable LGBT ideology." Porfirije said Orthodox Christians "cannot accept the imposition of new social norms that were not propagated by God."
A week later, the leader of a right-wing party rooted in Christianity and nationalism that returned to parliament in April thanks in part to a coalition with monarchists, expanded the complaint, adding seven other textbooks approved by the Education Ministry for primary- and secondary-school students.
Doors party leader Bosko Obradovic cited "controversial LGBT content" in five biology textbooks for eighth-graders, an eighth-grade history book, a fourth-grade sociology textbook, and a high-school manual on civic education.
He alleged that "the LGBT movement is trying to impose its ideology on the education system, even though that ideology is completely unscientific and unconstitutional."
Moreover, Obradovic said, its efforts were targeting students "in the most sensitive period of maturation."
He requested an urgent session of parliament's Education Committee and pledged to introduce legislation banning "promotion of homosexual propaganda and transgenderism to minors."
One of the biology textbooks in question explains the difference between sex and gender, and describes sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender "can be independent of the sex assigned to [a person] at birth," the book says, adding, "An individual alone can determine [their] gender identity."
The history textbook describes LGBT social movements as activists seeking the improvement of the situation for LGBT individuals "who are often socially exposed to widespread discrimination."
Whose 'National Interest'?
Education Minister Branko Ruzic responded to Porfirije's initiative by citing "public controversy" to order a new assessment of the syllabus involving the eighth-grade biology textbook.
He tasked the National Education Council with evaluating "whether the program is in accordance with scientific theories" and "whether the national interest is reflected in them, and whether this is in the best interest of education" for Serbia's children.
The council is currently seeking expert opinion ahead of an extraordinary session to agree on nonbinding conclusions for the minister.
Ruzic unfortunately "succumbed to the influence of those who should not question the curriculum, especially when it comes to natural, exact sciences that are based on data and research," Biljana Stojkovic, a professor of biology at the University of Belgrade who participated in the development of the new biology curriculum, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
She says the syllabus sticks to facts and that "national interest" has no place in scientific education since there's no "Serbian biology, physics, or chemistry."
Stojkovic, who was a presidential candidate for a green coalition in this year's presidential election won by incumbent Aleksandar Vucic and has publicly opposed religion in public education, says she regards the attacks on the syllabus as "censorship."
Forcing biology teachers "not to talk about what scientific knowledge is...will be met with great resistance from the biological profession," she said.
Serbia's 2018 law on textbooks prescribes that textbook publishers present a curriculum adopted by the education minister. The curriculum is recommended by the National Education Council based on a proposal from the Institute for the Improvement of Education, which operates under the ministry.
The curriculums and textbooks currently under attack by conservatives were introduced ahead of the 2021-22 academic year.
The Education Ministry declined to respond to RFE/RL queries on the textbook issue.
The Institute for the Improvement of Education told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the curriculum it proposed in 2019 was in line with accepted theories and facts, as well as with the legislatively mandated goals of education. There were no problems in the approval process for the related textbooks and the biology textbook in question has been in use for a year, the institute added.
"It wasn't done 'overnight,' it was a team of experts" who created the curriculum, Stojkovic said. "Schoolteachers were involved, too. The plan and program were fundamentally changed with the aim of modernizing them so you can apply the knowledge from biology in understanding the world around you."
She blamed the current criticisms on "retrograde structures whose goal is to hide this scientific knowledge" and "deny children the knowledge that certain minority groups exist in our society at all."
Bowing to the calls for banning the textbooks would be tantamount to "the capitulation of the state to increasingly strong clerical and nationalist currents," she said.
'Used To It Since We Were Little'
Critics, including the European Parliament, earlier this year expressed alarm over perceived Serbian concessions to Orthodox Church efforts emanating from Moscow to portray Russia as a guardian of traditional family values in the Balkans, thus strengthening ties there as Moscow faces increased isolation over its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
In a resolution warning of "foreign interference" in EU democratic processes in March, European lawmakers expressed concern about alleged "attempts by the Orthodox Church in countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially in its entity Republika Srpska, to promote Russia as a protector of traditional family values and fortify relations between state and church."
Around 85 percent of Serbia's population described itself as Christian Orthodox in the country's last census, in 2011.
President Vucic has done little to discourage the Serbian Orthodox Church's frequent forays into politics at home and in neighboring Montenegro and Bosnia. He has maintained close ties to Moscow and endorsed a "Slavic brotherhood" uniting Russians and Serbs throughout the region.
In an online Appeal For A Secular State, published on September 19, 200 prominent Serbs called for official pushback against an "increasingly extensive clericalization of the state."
Organized by longtime opposition leader Zoran Vuletic and his liberal Civic Democratic Forum (GDF) party, it blames the imposition of religious notions in education for the spread of "denial of science, conspiracy theories, and mythomania" that risks "raising whole generations in the spirit of the most conservative obscurantism, unable to live in the modern world and keep pace with their surroundings."
There are also fears that a Serbian ban on the teaching of issues around sexual orientation, gender identity, and LGBT activism could foreshadow prohibitions on gay "propaganda" like those introduced in Russia nearly a decade ago and in Hungary last year. Lawmakers in Romania are currently considering similar legislation.
Serbia's record on LGBT rights is mixed, at best, in a region where protections for sexual or gender minorities lag well behind the European Union.
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas like employment, trade, and education is prohibited in Serbia. Same-sex marriage was banned by a constitutional amendment in 2006 that defined a marriage as between a consenting "man and woman."
Subsequent bills to grant health care, property, and other rights to same-sex partners have all stalled despite international pressure.
Serbian NGOs record dozens of incidents of anti-LGBT violence every year.
Last week's European-wide celebration of LGBT pride in Belgrade marked the first time in EuroPride's two-decade history that it's come to the Balkans.
Pressured by some of the same groups that are behind the textbooks initiative, Serbian officials allowed many of the week's events to go ahead but banned the culminating EuroPride parade on September 17 over fears of violence.
Thousands of LGBT supporters marched anyway, outnumbered by police deployed to protect them from counterdemonstrators, including right-wing thugs and church leaders.
Uros Tanackovic, who worked as a EuroPride volunteer, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it was a chance for LGBT people to "come out one day a year and be who they are."
"Don't even ask gay people in Serbia if they've ever felt discriminated against -- we feel it every day," he said. "We've been used to it since we were little."