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  • May 2020 : Polarization and radicalization of religious discourse, effects of the health crisis

The Covid 19 epidemic brought the authorities to suspend certain rights and freedoms, particularly those concerning collective religious life. This has led to a return of the question of religion to public debate, and a sometimes tense exchange between secularisation activists and defenders of religion on different debates. Paradoxically, the image of the religious groups with an ancient presence in the country, and their capital of confidence, has benefited from this. Discussions have been sparked in particular by restrictions on freedom of worship, a poster campaign exploiting traditional holy imagery, false information provided by religious sites, the treatment of a religious figure infected with Covid 19, and various criticisms of religions and religious leaders.
A full article detailing all these debates is available in pdf.

Gabriel Birsan
  • 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.

Laurenţiu Tănase, Lucreţia Vasilescu, Manuela Gheorghe
  • December 2006 : Triggering public debate on removing icons from state schools

On 12 August 2006, Emil Moise, teacher of philosophy in a high school in Buzau (South-eastern Romania), filed a petition for "the removal of religious symbols from state school classrooms" with the National Council for Combating Discrimination (NCCD), a government body.
The teacher’s move sparked debate and controversy within the entire Romanian society. Emil Moise explains in the petition his stance against the presence of icons in state schools, stating that he is not opposed to religious education in schools nor to the presence of icons in the private sphere. In his view, icons on the classroom walls "discriminate against children belonging to other religions and are a threat to the right to freedom of conscience and religious choice". The author of the petition also refers to "the violation of freedom of thought of all Romanian children, the purpose of school being to train autonomous individuals who when reaching the age of majority choose, without being influenced, to keep their religion, become atheists or to adopt another religion" (V. Borza,"Moise nu vrea icoane în scoli"in Cotidianul, 15 November 2006 ; C. Patrasconiu,"Bunul simt dupa Moise" in Cotidianul, 15 November 2006).
This approach by teacher Emil Moise was backed by several non-governmental organisations which submitted an open letter of support to the NCCD, including further arguments to support the teacher’s action. They invoked Article 4 of the Romanian Constitution on the "equal treatment of pupils and teachers belonging to different faiths" and Article 29 prohibiting the interference of the state in ways of thinking, opinions and religious beliefs. Article 5 of the UN Declaration on eliminating all forms of discrimination was mentioned, as well as Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Law on the Rights of the Child which specifies that young people have the right to choose their own religion from age 16.
In response to the petition submitted by Emil Moise, on 21 December 2006 the NCCD announced its decision (no. 323), recommending that the Ministry of Education and Research prohibit the icons in schools. This decision states that "unlimited and uncontrolled presence of icons in state educational institutions is a violation of the principle of the religious neutrality of the state".

D 2 juin 2020    AGabriel Birsan ALaurenţiu Tănase ALucreţia Vasilescu AManuela Gheorghe

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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