English texts

RELIGIOUS EDUCATION: USAGE IN SECULAR BULGARIA

RELIGIOUS EDUCATION: USAGE IN SECULAR BULGARIA

In secular usage, religious education is the teaching of a particular religion and its varied aspects – beliefs, doctrines, rituals, customs, rites, and personal roles. In Western and secular culture, religious education implies a type of education which is mainly independent from academia and which (generally) regards religious belief as a fundamental tenet and an operating modality, as well as a prerequisite condition of attendance. The secular concept is substantially different from societies that adhere to religious law, where „religious education“ connotes the dominant academic study, and in typically religious terms, teaches doctrines which define social customs as „laws“ and the violations thereof as „crimes,“ or else misdemeanors requiring punitive correction. Since people within a given country often hold varying religious and non-religious beliefs, government-sponsored religious education can be a source of conflict. Countries vary widely in whether religious education is allowed in government-run schools (often called „public schools“). Those that allow it also vary in the type of education provided. People oppose religious education in public schools on various grounds. One is that it constitutes a state sponsorship or establishment of whatever religious beliefs are taught. Others argue that if a particular religion is taught in school, children who do not belong to that religion will either feel pressure to conform or be excluded from their peers. Proponents argue that religious beliefs have historically socialized people’s behavior and morality. They feel that teaching religion in school is necessary to encourage children to be responsible, spiritually sound adults.

Wikipedia: Religious education

What is the Bulgarian experience and why am I giving it as an example? Bulgaria is known for its history of peaceful ethnic co-existence. Unlike what happened in other countries in the region, in Bulgaria Orthodox Christians and Muslims went through the transition period from communist dictatorship to a democratic society without ethnic conflicts and casualties. Although the transition went peacefully, there is still some cause for concern. In Bulgaria the dominant religion is Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the State, the official institutions and the society as a whole, have to be careful about any attempt to impose this belief as exclusively dominant in any sphere of social life. Such an attempt would discriminate against the rest of Bulgarian’s religions, which have smaller numbers of followers.
So, Bulgaria faces a dilemma – to favor the dominant religion, discriminating against the others, or to respect the European values and principles in regard to the freedom to accept and practice religious beliefs.
After the communist era, during the formation of the modern Bulgarian democratic society, several laws were adopted, that regulate the presence of religion in the education system.

Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria
Article 13
(1) The practice of any religion is free.


Denominations Act
Art. 4. (1) Religions shall be free and equal in rights. Religious institutions shall be separated from the state.


Public Education Act
Art. 5. Education is secular.
Art. 15. (1) The State educational requirements… facilitate: The formation of a free, moral and creative person, which, as a Bulgarian citizen, respects the laws, the rights of others, their language, religion and culture.


Rules of application of the Public Education Act
Art. 4. (1) Secular education does not allow the imposition of ideological and religious doctrines upon the students.
(2) In the Public schools the religions are being taught in a historical, philosophical and cultural perspective through the different educational subjects.


Higher Education Act
Article 3 Hhigher secular education is independent of ideologies, religions and political doctrines. It shall comply with the universal human values and national traditions.

The framework, drawn by the above listed documents, defines Bulgaria as a secular state, where religion is separated from the state. Under this framework religion was not taught as a separate topic in the education system. This was apparently unacceptable for some of the legislators and probably some of the Orthodox clergymen, which has led to some minor-on-first-reading changes in the legislation system of Bulgaria. Some additional bylaws have been accepted, quietly changing the status quo and practically imposing particular religious doctrines in the educational process.
Changes, recently made by the legislators, as well as new bylaws, wash away the boundaries in which religions are „free and equal in rights and separated from the state“.
The changes made in 2002 in the Law on the Level of Schooling, the General Education Minimum and the curriculums of „Religions“ and „Religion – Islam“ approved by The Ministry of education and science resulted in Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam officially entering Bulgarian schools. There are now schools where religion is being taught as a separate topic and there is a move to expand it to the whole education system.
Let me explain more in detail how this happened. Articles 10 (4) and 15 (3) of the Law on the Level of Schooling were amended so that the General Education Minimum included religion among the other topics to be taught in the Schools of Bulgaria. But these articles do not specify what religions are to be taught.
In 2003, amendments were made to the Rules of Implementation of the Public Education Act, art. 4 (3), adding the sentence: „The education in religion will be practiced in accordance with the instruction of the Minister of Education and Science.“ The Ministry has used its authority to give Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam a preferred position in the education system by approving official courses of study that cover the topic from their perspective.
I’m sure many would agree that the vast spiritual heritage of humankind has its place in the educational institutions and curriculums. One can hardly question the need for „historical, philosophical and cultural“ discourse of world’s religions in education. No one will object if religions are taught in the schools, as long as the principle of religions being „separate from the State, equal in rights and free“, as provided by the Constitution of Bulgaria and the Denominations Act, is respected.
I will not quote the international documents, which, I’m sure, are well known to the respected audience. I consider that the internal laws of Bulgaria are sufficient to regulate the teaching of religion in the schools, if they are followed properly, in harmony with the requirements of religions being equal. Unfortunately, now the laws are being applied in such a way as to give Orthodox Christianity and Islam preference. In the experimental text book, approved by the Ministry we find other religions being taught from the perspective of Orthodoxy and Islam and classified as being inferior.
One problem is that Bulgarian laws do not clearly define terms like: faith, religion, religious society and religious denomination. Undoubtedly, the terms religion and religious education (in the context of the historical, philosophical and cultural values of the world’s religions) are inclusive, whereas the terms faith (Eastern orthodoxy in Bulgarian context) and religious education (in the same context) are exclusive, which is not acceptable according to the democratic values of the European Union. In my report I use the term „Secular state“ in the sense of a State in which the religions are „Independent from the state, free and equal“.
For the purpose of this presentation I need to mention that the present Denominations Act in Bulgaria was passed in the last working days of year 2002 (19th of Dec.). During the voting in the Parliament, there were public protests by many of the denominations in Bulgaria, except for Orthodox Christianity and Islam. After the act was passed, President Parvanov received a letter, signed by 18 religious organizations and NGO’s, appealing to him to veto the law. Paying no attention to the protests, the President signed the Act. As a result, he was awarded by the Patriarch of Russia for „his outstanding work to strengthen the unity of the orthodox peoples“ and the material value of the award is 50,000 dollars. The Russian Patriarch clarified that the award was given to the Bulgarian President for his support to the new religious law (signing it without objections) at the end of 2002. He also mentions that this law eliminates the split within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The same law was attacked by a group of about 50 members of Parliament and sent to the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria, with an appeal for abolishing it as anti-constitutional, which did not actually happen, although six out of twelve judges supported the appeal. But the Constitutional Court law requires seven votes for an actual decision.
After the law came into effect, in July 2004 the Public prosecutor ordered the police to take unprecedented intervention in the internal affairs of the biggest religions in Bulgaria; the police pulled out by force from their churches the Orthodox priests who do not support the current Patriarch. Some of them were arrested during their service.
These are some of the facts related to the problem of „religious education in Bulgaria“. These facts signify the failure of Bulgaria to keep its secularity and impartiality towards all the religions in the country. The partiality of the State to Orthodox Christianity, and to some extend to Islam, has had some side effects in the teaching of religion in the education system, which I address here.

All laws and bylaws listed bellow constitute Bulgaria as a secular state: The Constitution; The Denominations’ Act; The Public Education Act; The Rules of Public Education; The Law on the Level of Schooling, the General Education Minimum; The Instruction of the Ministry of Education and Science on the Religion and Religion-Islam subjects in school

All these define Bulgaria as a state where religions are „independent from the state, free and equal“. They require that the state be independent from the religion, that it remains secular. The laws declare that no ideological or religious doctrines shall be imposed on students. That would be inadmissible. But is is happening. Under the newly amended education laws, the Education ministry has approved two experimental textbooks called „Religion“ and „Religion – Islam“. If we examine them in detail, we will see that they clearly propagate Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam and characterize the other religions as inferior. In this way, these religious doctrines enter the religious curriculum in an unfair way. If, as seems likely, these experimental textbooks, or similar ones, are expended to the whole education system, this will be bad for the equality of the religions, supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and other laws. Although one of the textbooks has the title „Religion“, it is in fact a presentation of Orthodox Christianity and other religions are mentioned only briefly and characterized and inferior to it. It would seem therefore that the use of the apparently neutral title „Religion“ is deceptive and inaccurate.
If the Bulgarian government would directly say that religion is to be taught in the schools in the context of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam only, that would lead to polemics with an unpredictable outcome. It would also lead to disapproval by the European institutions. That is why the amendments of the quoted laws have been carefully worded to neutralize the possible negative effects. But the actual implementation of the laws is in fact leading to the imposition and domination of the major religions over the minor ones.
In conclusion I’d say that in its attempts to make rapid advancement in its process of joining the European Union, a community which respects the fundamental human rights, Bulgaria adjusts its legislation in such a way that externally these fundamental human rights seem to be respected and guaranteed, but at the same time, after the chapter „Education and professional training“ was closed in the process of negotiation with the EU, Bulgarian legislators amended the laws dealing with the problem in such a way that they in fact favor and privilege particular religions at the cost of the others. The Religious law of Bulgaria was criticized in that regard by Malcolm D. Evans and Rick Lawson for its discriminatory provisions. Evans writes that many of its provisions contradict the provisions of Art. 9 or European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and that the act creates the impression that it favors one denomination over the others, which also contradicts the convention.
Bulgaria became an EU member on January 1st this year. These issues seem not to be very topical, but the problems I am addressing are recognized by the minority religions and the human rights activists and organizations in Bulgaria and worldwide. I share this information with the respected audience of this conference, organized by the Macedonian government and the President of the State, since Macedonia is on its way to the European Union membership. I believe my country is a natural ally and well-wisher of Macedonia in this process. I believe that knowing all the positive and negative experience we have in Bulgaria in the field of religious freedom will help your leaders to avoid mistakes which Bulgaria made in its process of democratization and transition from a totalitarian to a democratic society which respects and protects the fundamental human rights.
I wish and believe that Macedonia will make the proper choice when regulating its legislation in this sphere so that it covers the standards of the European Union. Thank you very much for your attention!

Asen Genov
International Society for Krishna Consciousness Sofia, Bulgaria
(Ohrid, Macedonia, 26-28 October 2007)

How Bulgaria Viewed New Religious Movements in 2006

This provocative conference[1] once again highlighted the dichotomies in the sphere of religion in Bulgaria. At one end is the dominant religion in Bulgaria, both in numerical and historical terms, and its followers. In the middle, as in the political arena, is the second-most numerous traditional religious community in the country. All other religious communities follow suit. This separation marginalizes smaller religious communities, those not belonging to the giants. They are thus, right from the start, relegated to existence in the periphery. The reality of accession to the European Union will probably not bring about a significant change in the status quo in this area, but it will certainly require some changes with regard to language. To what extent these changes in the mode of expression will lead to changes in people’s mentality, the reinforcement of democratic values, and zn end to religious discrimination is another matter.

A SHIFT IN TERMINOLOGY

In the first place, the new rhetoric finds its expression in attempts to make a shift in terminology. More and more often, the term “cult” is substituted by the politically correct expression “new religious movements,” in official documents and news reports, and the “war on cults” and “their destructive influence” becomes the euphemistic “new religious movements: problems and perspectives.” There is, however, some resistance to this approach. The “cults” are still there, in the minds of religious fanatics. The “cults” still sell newspapers, by being used to spice up articles emphasizing the threat of terrorism, loss of identity, and giving in to “foreign influence.” Let us recall that the terms “cult,” “national security,” and “traditional faith” have no legal definition; thus, they cannot provide a basis for the relationship between the state and religious denominations. They can only be used in the sphere of historical, social, religious, public, and other types of discourse – as well as in the media, in an attempt to increase the circulation, or popularity of a given outlet.

THE CONFERENCE

At the opening, Prof. Vasil Prodanov spoke of “the new situation,” the globalization, and “the religious pluralism confronting traditional religions, which are being assailed with marketing techniques.” Stoycho Yotov [2] spoke on religion and national se- curity, noting that “the aims of the new religious movements are not always religious.” Sometimes, they are “political and demographic.” According to him, “a battle of interests and survival” was being waged.

Georgi Krustev [3] drew attention to Recommendation 1412 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which reaffirmed the Assembly’s commitment to freedom of conscience and religion and pointed out that special legislation targeting “cults” could have an impact on the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in Article 9 of the Convention on Human Rights.

Ass. Prof. Dimitar Dimitrov [4] emphasized the “brutal proselytism of the new religious movements” and defined the reasons for the existence of “cults” – the “lack of religious upbringing.” Afterwards he read a salutation from the Dean of the Theology Faculty,
Ass. Prof. Dr. Emil Traychev. The conference organizers expressed their profound respect towards the only foreign guest, Friedrich Griess (President of FECRIS [5]), who drew a parallel between the Third Reich, Communism, and “cults,” and voiced his hope that the CSNRM would become a member of his federation. Ralitsa Kostadinova [6] confirmed the Center’s intentions to that effect.

These introductory words clearly delineated the phalanxes and warriors on the “front lines of the war on cults.”

The speakers’ approach was well-known to everyone, while the position expressed by the government representatives seemed a bit more restrained; that is understandable, given the not-atall-unbiased statements of most of the conference organizers and its main participants. The absence from the program of any human rights organizations, expressing an unequivocal position on matters of freedom of religion, undoubtedly strengthened the impression of moderation on the part of the more restrained speakers.

What was the government’s position? Svetla Margaritova [8] cited and underscored Bulgaria’s obligations, and offered a brief introduction to the standards set by the European Court. As a member of the Council of Europe since 1992, Bulgaria needs to harmonize its legislation and practices to European standards. This necessity also follows from our country’s ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. She reminded the participants that to date, Bulgaria had lost several cases before the ECtHR. In her speech, Ms. Margaritova outlined the concrete borderlines of freedom of religion and the acceptable limitations that could be imposed by the religious movements themselves, as well as the acceptable conditions under which, but only in specific cases, restrictive actions may be taken against freedom of religion. She spoke in favor of concrete facts, in contrast to the abstract accusations and threats expressed by most of the other speakers. Svetla Margaritova clearly underlined Bulgaria’s obligation to conform to Art. 9 of the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and examined the Bulgarian legal framework in that area. She confirmed that the term “national security” has no legal definition, and that is why neither the Supreme Administrative Court nor the Sofia City Court (which registers the legal entities representing religious denominations, under the law) could be satisfied with unfounded requests, devoid of concrete evidence and based on a supposed “threat to national security.” According to Jasmina Donkova [9], a “colorful religious landscape” is the hallmark of a democratic civil society, while official registration has to do only with the granting of legal status and participation in the legal realm, but not with the categorization of the religious community. For Donkova, as a government official, “the term “cult” has no legal definition” and is unacceptable, and the official registration is not mandatory for religious movements, since “the law also gives unregistered religious groups the right to practice their faith.” Donkova did not condone the aggressive rhetoric of the majority of the speakers, on the eve of our accession to the European Union, and emphasized that “we need to be more tolerant, to accept people who have differing views and to get used to the idea that they have the same rights as we do, and for which we are fighting for.” She argued that any rights violations in the sphere of religion should be handled by the general legislation, without the imposition of any special restrictions.
The monk Father Zoevski [10] adopted a curious approach. He shattered the “cults” in Russia to pieces, comparing them to “Mafia or Leninist structures.” His speech did not radiate with love of one’s neighbor. The speech of Ibrahim Yalumov [11], who offered an academically rigorous examination of the rights and freedoms in Islam, was met with well-deserved applause.

FINAL QUESTIONS

The concluding portion of the conference was dedicated to the media, and contrary to expectations, was not geared towards a broader spectrum of media outlets covering the issue, but rather, was reserved for an inner circle of radio and television programs and print journalists [12], who shared the views of most of the speakers. On the one hand, these journalists used the same ideology and rhetoric, and on the other, they plainly declared their reluctance to provide a platform for different ideas and doctrines, trying to excuse themselves with the difficulty of getting in touch with the representatives of new religious movements. The excuse rang hollow, given the presence of such representatives and ones from the Religious Affairs Directorate.The new religious denominations in this country and their registered legal entities are still categorized as “a threat to national security,” which calls for preventive measures.The questions that inevitably spring up in the mind of any objectively thinking observer of these events, serve to distance him from the whole pattern.

Asen Genov
Obektiv nagazine, English Dygest, Nov. 2006
Translation: Iva Vatova
[1] From 10 to 12 November 2006, a three-day national conference was held in Sofia, entitled “The New Religious Movements: Problems and Perspectives on the Threshold of the EU”, organized by the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements (CSNRM) and the Working Group on “Religion and National Security” at the Institute of Philosophy Studies of
the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS), with the active cooperation of the Theology Faculty of Sofia University (which provided the hall) and the support of the Council of Ministers

[2] Working group on “religion and national security” at the BAS Institute of Philosophy Studies.

[3] Council of Ministers Directorate of Religious Affairs.

[4] Theology Faculty.

[5] Federation of European Centers for Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS).

[6] Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements.
[7] Bulgarian Parliament and the Council of Ministers Directorate of Religious Affairs

[8] Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Religious
Affairs

[9] Chief specialist at the Council of Ministers Directorate of
Religious Affairs

[10] Theology student

[11] Dean of the Islamic Institute

[12] “Vyara” [“Faith”] TV network, Studio 865, religia.bg, dveri.bg, pravoslavie.bg, the Church Gazette, “Zion” radio station, Blagovestie” [“Annunciation”] – Bulgarian National Radio,
Silviya Nikolova, Duma newspaper.

„OBEKTIV“ Magazine of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee