Bulgaria debates bringing religious studies back into schools

Sofia, Bulgaria - Almost 20 years after the fall of communism, Bulgaria wants to reverse widespread ignorance about religion fostered under the old regime by making religious studies compulsory in schools.

The government's proposal, however, has churned up some stormy opposition to this long-time taboo.

Georgy Bakalov, who heads a team tasked by the education ministry with designing a syllabus, said the idea was to give "lay" instruction on basic facts about the history and views of the world's different religions.

"We plan to introduce religion as a subject in the curriculum to improve the general knowledge of students and teach them goodwill and tolerance," he said.

Biblical parables would be used to prod moral values into younger children, while older ones would be taught the history of religions, major holy sites and deities, sacred texts, as well as religious ethics and art, Bakalov said.

The courses would be compulsory in primary school and optional for secondary students -- but only introduced "if there is a minimum of consensus," said Education Miniser Daniel Valtchev.

Bulgaria's population is 80 percent Christian Orthodox, by tradition, and the church has long pressed for reintroducing courses on Christianity, which were part of every school's curriculum prior to communism.

The country also has a Turkish minority of Muslim faith, who represent 10 percent of the population.

Under a bid to promote respect for minority rights, optional studies on Christianity or Islam were actually introduced about a decade ago though only 14,000 students nationwide follow the course on their respective religion.

But these classes "are attracting less and less interest," said an opponent to the government's plan, Lyutfi Mestan, who is chairman of the parliamentary committee on education and an MP for the Turkish minority party Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

"Instead of teaching tolerance, this type of religious study has divided pupils," he insisted.

Since 2000, separate lectures on Christianity, Islam and Buddhism as well as on faith, fundamentalism and religious sects are already included in high school philosophy classes.

During communism, church-going was not tolerated so when the regime fell in 1989, people reacted by crowding back into churches. Traditional rituals were revived for Easter and Christmas and are still largely followed, even if only 30 percent of Bulgarians define themselves as believers.

Today the inauguration of new buildings and offices often includes a religious service and since 2001, government members even take the oath of office on the Bible and before the Christian Cross.

"But many parents oppose the introduction of religion as a full-fledged subject in schools," said Tsveta Brosnichka of the national student parents' association.

"It's not one course a week that is going to keep the young away from religious sects and violence," she said.

Iliana Dimitrova, a teenager from Sofia, objected for other reasons. "The curriculum is already too tight. Those interested in religion can find information on the Internet."

On the pro side is political analyst Mira Yanova, mother of two high school students, who would welcome courses on major religions that also teach ethnic, cultural and religious tolerance.

"Such knowledge, necessary to all people nowadays, was denied to us," she said.

Many Bulgarians still confuse religious faith and superstition, a 2004 Gallup poll showed.

Half of all people in this east European country still believe in black magic and fear the evil eye, while one in five people believe ghosts exist, black cats bring bad luck and that one can talk to the dead, according to the poll.

Gallup analyst Andrey Raychev suggested that imposing religious studies on an atheist population could be "dangerous" if religion was only presented in a good light without discussing the Crusades, the Inquisition or moments when religious fervor led to repression and abuse.

This would be "a grave error", he insisted.