- March 2007 : Icons in state schools – a brief history and explanation
To understand the significance of these debates in contemporary Romanian society about the presence of icons in Romanian state schools, we must recall some aspects of the recent history of Romania.
In 1989, the last year under the Communist dictatorship, Romanian society was marked by conflict between the official atheist propaganda and an immense spiritual and religious power which was secretly fuelling hopes of freedom. Religious faith was the only form of popular resistance to the oppressive political regime. The fall of the communist regime in December 1989 favoured the presence of religious expression and aspirations in all public events, religious behaviour being more often than not clear evidence of the liberation from Communism and its consequences on human psyche and behaviour. Religion was often used to re-legitimise certain public figures who had belonged to the old political system. No public event (in the sphere of government or politics) began at that time without the presence of at least one priest saying prayers of intercession for the success of the initiative or the activity of the institution being inaugurated. The Orthodox Church was regaining the public prestige that used to characterise it before the Communist regime came to power in 1948 and guaranteed, by virtue of its authority, the formation of democratic institutions of the Romanian state, of parliament, government, political parties or institutions. Under these conditions, as moral reparation for Romanian culture and spirituality, lessons in religion were reintroduced into the school curricula, based on the existing model used during the interwar period before the Communists came to power.
Although, after 1990, religion was an optional subject for pupils in primary and secondary schools, its introduction into the annual school curriculum took place without any opposition from teaching bodies or school administrations.
Without specific legislation, in the absence of specialised teachers and textbooks, religion was often taught by a priest - or by theology students in areas where there was an active faculty of theology. Therefore, a popular form of religious education in schools developed in the form of a weekly catechism for pupils. To respect the religious diversity of the country, in regions where the majority of the population was not Orthodox, the religion taught was that of the religious majority. Gradually, icons were being hung in state schools on the walls of classrooms, laboratories or in open areas. Over-zealous in some cases, a simple photocopy of an icon became a new icon, thereby distorting its spiritual significance and reducing its importance in the Orthodox religion.
Considering that the presence of icons in schools would affect pupils’ freedom in choosing a religion, Emil Moise, teacher of philosophy in a high school in the town of Buzau, asked the Ministry of Education and Research in 2006 to ban Orthodox icons in state schools. His initiative - motivated by the respect for religious freedom for every citizen - sparked unprecedented public debate, inflaming as much the political class as intellectuals and civil society, not to mention the Romanian Orthodox Church. The latter viewed the teacher’s action as an atheist, anti-orthodox approach aimed, according to Church representatives, at weakening the Orthodox faith among pupils. Many discussions were held in late 2006 and early 2007. Even if other issues are at the centre of people’s concerns, the climate of conflict surrounding the removal of icons from state schools persists and still seems to fuel debate for or against with a sufficient number of arguments.
- February 2007 : The Romanian Parliament and some NGOs oppose removing icons from schools
Decision no. 323/21 of December 2006 of the National Council for Combating Discrimination (NCCD), which recommended that the Ministry of Education and Research ban icons in schools, generated further controversy among Romanian public opinion. The Romanian Orthodox Church also reacted with a press release, stating that "the presence of religious symbols in classrooms does not result from a constraint, but from the desire and agreement of parents, teachers and pupils". Recognised faiths in Romania (the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Jewish community of Romania, the Muslim religion etc.) adopted similar positions and officially declared their dissatisfaction with the decision of the NCCD.
The Civic Media Association and over one hundred NGOs held the same attitude. In the circumstances, they created the Coalition for the Respect of Religious Sentiment which thousands of people and public figures joined. The coalition has threatened to take legal action against decision no. 323 of the NCCD.
The Romanian Parliament has itself been implicated in the controversy. In January 2007, following protests by more than 150 NGOs, members of the Romanian Academy, teaching unions, journalists, teachers etc., the Teaching Commission of the Chamber of Deputies recommended that the Ministry of Education and Research - the only institution that could take decisions in this situation - let local communities and parents chose whether religious symbols and icons be present in schools.
In light of this recommendation, the Ministry of Education and Research has so far refused to make binding decision no. 323 of the NCCD and has asked Parliament to pronounce the last word on the matter.
But the conflict of opinion is far from over. Emil Moise and his supporters, in response to the refusal of the Ministry of Education and Research to implement the NCCD’s recommendation, have threatened to complain to the European Court in Strasbourg. In the opposing camp are the Romanian Orthodox Church and other historical, officially recognised religions, many non-governmental organisations, personalities and many intellectuals. Associations such as Civic Media, have launched a wide campaign to collect signatures in favour of keeping icons in schools.
It should be noted that such a debate is not at all alien to Western Europe. One may recall the problem of the presence of crucifixes in schools in Italy, England or Germany where, despite decisions by the courts, religious symbols have been preserved in public spaces by virtue of the continuing European secular tradition.
It is certain that requiring the application of such measures by imposing "top down" legislative decisions prohibiting icons in state schools does not lead to a solution consistent with the religious sentiments of the Romanian population which is predominantly Orthodox.
After 45 years of Communist dictatorship - in which the icons were removed from public spaces as a result of political decisions - attempts to blacklist these religious symbols of such importance to the Romanian Orthodoxy deeply offends the religious sensibilities of the Romanian people and can be interpreted in extremis as an attack against the cultural and religious identity of the Romanian people.