BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The school priest wanted to convert Andrei to Romania’s Orthodox Christianity, because his school could not hire a teacher for religion classes for the 12-year-old Adventist.
“Some of my classmates push me outside the door before their religion class, others ask me why am I not Orthodox, the same way the priest had asked my parents,” said Andrei.
“God helps me forgive them, but I don’t like these jokes,” said the boy, who did not give his last name, fearing problems at his school near Bucharest’s city centre.
Students like Andrei from minority religions hope planned education reforms, meant to modernize curricula and overhaul religious instruction, will help them feel more welcome in this Black Sea state.
But in recent months, the powerful Orthodox Church has put pressure on the government to water down these reforms, seen by many observers as a litmus test of the European Union member’s efforts to combat religious, sexual and ethnic discrimination.
Around 90 percent of the population belong to the Orthodox Church and three-quarters say they trust it, making it Romania’s most popular institution. Only one in five people trusts parliament, which has been tainted by corruption scandals.
As parliament prepares to debate the education reforms — expected before elections in November — non governmental organizations are pressing for substantial changes, but they face opposition from the influential clergy.
“Religious education here indoctrinates, fuelling prejudice against other faiths and against sexual minorities,” said Smaranda Enache, co-president of human rights group Liga Pro-Europa.
“But it’s more than this. Teaching children to discriminate against something builds a national mentality and in the end people reject differences and discriminate against everything.”
In a report on religious freedoms published last year, the U.S. State Department said minority religious groups had “credibly asserted that authorities pressured children of other faiths to attend classes of Orthodox religion.”
The education reforms initially proposed introducing alternatives to religion classes. They also said all religious symbols should be placed in schools, not just Orthodox icons, as is the case now in most schools.
Atheists would also be allowed to refuse religious education without parental permission if over 16 years old. At the moment, parental permission is required.
But after a public debate and meetings with clergy, the initial idea of alternatives to religious classes was dropped.
The education ministry denied it had bowed to any pressure and defended the content of religious classes.
“None of the world’s religions teaches bad things,” said deputy education minister Zvetlana Preoteasa.
“Religious and sexual discrimination are not a problem of the schools. As far as I know, all religions say their God is the greatest and almost all disagree with homosexuality and we can’t change peoples’ faiths.”
However, human rights campaigners say the debate over education reforms illustrates a wider problem of intolerance in a society where priests often join violent anti-gay marches and the vast Roma community lives on the margins of society.
Church officials campaigned against the reforms with the slogan “No high school without God.”
“The values offered by religious education are needed desperately ... in times of aggressive and materialist individualism,” Patriarch Daniel, the head of the Romanian Orthodox Church, said in a press release.
The Church has often been accused by human rights groups and political observers of interfering in government policies and working to keep the rights of sexual minorities off the agenda.
But despite church opposition, some change is being implemented in Romania’s schools.
The ministry recently withdrew a textbook that warned about religious “cults seeking to introduce Christ to the Romanian people, as if they haven’t known him for almost two millennia.”
NGOs say the majority of manuals still preach intolerance. For example, another textbook for high-school pupils warns against “devil’s work,” such as magic and yoga.
“The little Christian’s ABC,” used in primary school, tells of a boy who climbed a ladder to destroy a swallow’s nest and was punished by God, who pulled down the ladder. The boy ends up in hospital with a head injury.
“This suggests punishment through use of violence is accepted,” said Enache from Liga Pro-Europa.
Some analysts see little chance of radical reform in education, especially before the November parliamentary polls.
Many politicians, who often carry Bibles on their person, are eager to secure the backing of parish priests ahead of elections, making them unlikely to oppose the church.
“Romanian politicians have an instinctive fear of excommunication, and they rarely oppose the views of the church,” said political analyst Bogdan Teodorescu.
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile