Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hungarian kids go to mass as churches take over schools

Financially strapped Hungarian towns are handing over the running of their schools to churches, which means that the constitutional guarantee of a religious-free education is no longer possible.

Hard-hit by the economic crisis, several small towns and villages have argued that they are unable to maintain their schools and so have offloaded them to religious institutions -- most often to the Catholic Church.

Over the past year, nearly 80 public schools -- out of over 4,300 around the country -- have changed hands, according to the ministry of national resources, which also oversees education.

The number of schools controlled by the Catholic Church increased by 20 percent, while the Evangelical Church recorded a 13-percent hike and the Reformed Church a 10-percent increase, the ministry said.

Education remains free, but pupils have found themselves suddenly obliged to receive religious instruction. Prayer has become compulsory and teaching now follows Christian values.

"Every Monday, we start with an act of piety: the children pray in silence and listen to a verse from the Bible," said Katalin Kalina, assistant principal at the Sztehlo Gabor school in Budapest's 18th district. 

The Evangelical Church took it over at the start of the school year.

Most classes also begin every day with a prayer, she said.

District authorities insist they did not relinquish control of the school exclusively for financial reasons, but also to offer children a better education.

"That's partly why the Evangelical Church took over this institution. It provides more educational options in the 18th district."

But not everyone is satisfied with the solution.

"I have a few friends who attend that school," said Adam, 19, who goes to another school in the neighbourhood.

"They are not happy at all about the Church's interference in their studies."

"There are Jewish and Arab kids going to school there," said Istvan Varga, also 19. "Why should they go the mass?"

"One's religion and beliefs should be private, it should be no one else's business. You cannot force an 18-year-old... to believe in God if he doesn't want to."

In Budapest, changing schools even from one district to the next is relatively easy.

But in small villages such as Zsombo, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital, parents and children have just one school -- and it has now become a religious institution.

"Under the constitution, the state must guarantee a primary education, and one that is ideologically neutral," said Lajos Aary-Tamas, the ombudsman for educational rights.

Last year, he launched an inquiry into whether school takeovers by religious institutions in several villages violated children's rights to a non-religious education. Its findings are still awaited.

But not everyone is upset at the changes.

At the Sztehlo Gabor school in Budapest, several pupils noted the rules were now a little stricter. But it was "not such a drastic change", the added, and they accepted it.

"It's the same as it was before, we just have go to mass on Monday now," said one student who declined to give his name. I don't mind that, although I'm not a believer. It's early in the morning, I don't pay attention to what's being said during mass."