Friday, February 08, 2013

European ombudsman urges Commission to take steps to improve dialogue with religions

Nikiforos DiamandourosEuropean ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, has asked the European Commission to clarify how it conducts its dialogue with religious and non-religious organisations and, if necessary, draw up concrete guidelines on this issue.

One of the thorniest issues that requires clarification is religious education in schools. Religion is taught in most European schools, but not all of these teach the Catholic religion or one religion in particular, with the exception of Italy, where Catholicism reigns supreme, Greece and Cyprus, where the Orthodox faith is the established religion and Turkey, where the Muslim faith is dominant. 

Then there are twelve multi-religious countries both in terms of the various denominations, including non-Christian ones (Judaism, Islam and Buddhism) that exist and in terms of interdenominational disciplines (Sweden, UK and some Swiss cantons). The latter is very popular in Hamburg at the moment. Naturally, the question arises as to why the “German Pope” wants to deny Italy something which in Germany is neither scandalous nor causes problems to ecclesiastical authorities or to the citizenry.

In Southern Germany, which is prevalently Catholic, the teaching of Islam, in the Turkish language in some cases, is a widespread phenomenon. There are six countries in which different religions (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) are taught in the same school or region, sometimes in different parts of the country. Schools in Bulgaria and Russia teach both the Orthodox and Muslim religions. In Russia, Buddhism and Judaism are also taught de jure, whilst Finnish schools cover a number of Protestant denominations. Only three European countries do not offer religious education in schools: France (except Alsace-Lorraine), Hungary (where religion is an optional extracurricular subject) and Slovenia.

In some countries, there are only some areas or schools that do not teach religion (Sweden), cantons (Switzerland) and some grades (Bulgarian secondary school). In six other countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Portugal and Luxemburg) religious education is not part of the curriculum as such, but is an alternative to a lay “ethical” curriculum. Something similar to this is taking place in the federal states of Brandenburg and Berlin, where a referendum rejected the idea of making religious education obligatory in schools. In Belgium and in Croatian secondary schools, religion is an optional subject, the alternative being ethics or morality classes.

In other countries, religious studies are an obligatory subject with the possibility of exemption (in 14 countries, as happened in Italy before the Concordat with the Vatican was signed in 1984) or it is optional (in 12 countries such as Italy after the Concordat with the Vatican was signed in 1984). In some countries, certain areas (Swiss cantons) and school grades (Croatia) offer both obligatory and optional religious studies classes. Only twelve countries offer alternative disciplines to pupils who do not want to attend religious studies classes (including countries where religion is offered as an alternative). In nine countries the subject offered as an alternative is Ethics and in three cases (Italy, Russia, Ukraine), individual schools choose their own alternative activities.

In Germany, it is up to each individual lände to choose what the alternative subject will be: it could be Ethics or Practical Philosophy or History of Religion or a combination of all three. Seventeen countries offer no alternative subject. In 17 of the 31 countries taken into consideration, the state is said to control religious education. In Italy and Spain, for example, it is the bishops who decide on nominations. In Italy teachers are either hired on a permanent (by passing an exam) or temporary basis, in Spain they have a fixed-term contract but are not permanent members of staff.

In Greece too, religious studies teachers are public sector workers. In eleven countries, to teach religion, one must have a university degree or diploma in theology or religious studies, awarded by state universities. In fifteen countries, including Italy, an ecclesiastical certificate attests to the teacher’s ability to teach religion. In Bulgaria and the French region of Alsace-Lorraine, religion is taught directly by clerics (deacons, pastors, catechists).

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