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
(1) The practice of any religion is free.
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!
International Society for Krishna Consciousness Sofia, Bulgaria
(Ohrid, Macedonia, 26-28 October 2007)