17 July 2001 – The Belgrade Center for Human Rights expresses concern that, in the debate over the introduction of religious education into state schools, the right to freedom of religion and belief has been wrongly interpreted. Freedom of religion and belief consists of an individual’s right to profess whichever religion they choose, as well as the right to profess no religion. This right also includes parents’ rights to educate their children according to their own religious beliefs and the religion they themselves choose. It is wrong to claim that the right to freedom of religion and belief means that the state is obliged to provide religious education, either compulsory or optional, in public schools. The state is only required to ensure that religious education can be conducted freely, and to not interfere with its implementation.
Regardless of whether or not religious education will be introduced, or in what form, the Belgrade Center for Human Rights is opposed to the abrupt decisions being adopted without adequate previous discussion. The Center believes that in a multicultural and multiconfessional society such as Serbia, these matters should be approached with extreme caution. The Center is aware that young people should know about the main religions of the world as these influence our culture generally, however this knowledge cannot be attained through religious instruction in one faith alone.
One particularly worrying tendency in this debate is to present another subject which strives to create a commitment towards democracy, human rights and tolerance among students as an alternative subject, for those students who do not attend religious classes. This arrangement would be detrimental for proponents of religious education as well, because it could lead to the conclusion that religiosity means not believing in democracy, human rights and tolerance, which is probably not what religious education proponents want.
The Belgrade Center for Human Rights would like to suggest to the government of the Republic of Serbia that it delay its decision concerning the introduction of religious education until a serious debate on all the consequences of such a decision has taken place, and until the matters of how the curriculum should include content confirming the values of civic society, democracy and human rights, and whether or not staff are fully prepared and trained to teach students these values are adequately addressed.
Also, the Belgrade Center for Human Rights reminds the government of the Republic of Serbia that it is bound by certain international obligations, undertaken upon its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Parties to this Convention are obliged by articles 12, 13 and 14 to ensure in an appropriate manner the child’s right to freedom of thought, belief and religion and free expression of opinion. These articles should be interpreted as the right of the child, and not only of parents and the government, to participate in the decisions that concern him or her the most.