Islamic teaching in Bosnia kindergartens causes uproar
In a country still smarting from a 1990s war that coined the term ‘ethnic cleansing,’ some are worried religious teaching in classrooms will only widen the divide between Bosnians.Sarajevo -- The tiny students, some in their first year at a Sarajevo kindergarten, are led away from their classmates by a woman peering out from a headscarf who will give them a lesson on the basics of Islam.
"Kids have been asking me why they are being separated and what a religious class is," said a teacher, who asked not to be named. "It was so difficult at the beginning."
The "bula" -- an intermediary between an imam and the family -- grabs their attention with animal pictures on a laptop. She then goes on to explain how the Prophet Mohammed travelled from Mecca to Medina.
The lesson seems innocent enough for three to six-year-olds. But the decision by the Muslim-led county council to allow religious instruction in Sarajevo kindergartens has met a chorus of outrage from critics who fear it is part of an attempt to "Islamicise" Bosnia's capital.
In a country still smarting from a 1990s war that coined the term "ethnic cleansing," one vocal opponent warns there could be payback.
"Every wrong move could ... come back and hit us like a boomerang," said psychologist Jasna Bajraktarevic, who feels such teaching should be confined to the family home. "The introduction of religion classes in kindergartens is a kind of a Trojan Horse hiding a desire to provoke conflict among different confessions."
Not all agree. But the start of the classes in October ratcheted up tensions across the country, still split among rival ethnic groups -- Muslims, Serbs and Croats -- who shed each other's blood in the 1992 to 1995 conflict.
"All of this will just deepen divisions among people here, and that is wrong," said Helena Mandic, a non-Muslim mother who leads a group of parents challenging the decision.
Muslims account for about 40 percent of Bosnia's 3.8 million inhabitants. About 31 percent of Bosnians are Christian Orthodox Serbs and about 10 percent are Roman Catholic Croats.
Religious instruction in state schools is optional and has been offered in primary and high schools throughout the country for the three main confessions since the end of the war.
It was offered for the city's 2,000 youngest students after a survey found that one-third of the parents were also ready to enrol the kindergarteners in such classes.
The county education ministry defends the initiative, saying it is in line with a religious freedom act in force since 2004.
"We would have been violating that law if we did not organise religious teaching," said Srecko Zmukic, an official with the ministry.
Each faith has been invited to prepare a curriculum but so far only Islamic classes have been organised in Sarajevo, where the weekly 30-minute lessons are funded by the city's Muslim government.
The Catholic Church is expected to prepare its programme soon but its Orthodox counterpart as yet has shown no interest, Zmukic said.
A terrible mistake?
Opponents say the Islamic kindergarten lessons place Sarajevo's children on the frontline of a populist political battleground to capitalise on post-conflict nationalist sentiment.
They argue that such young children are unable to properly understand the subject and warn of the consequences of separating them for the classes.
"It could prove to be a terrible mistake in a post-war society deeply divided along ethnic lines," psychologist Bajraktarevic told AFP. "I'm afraid that in 20 years from now we could have a country that is ethnically divided far deeper than today, and we would be very close to another conflict.”
Supporters say many parents' time is already stretched and that parents are happy to hand over the responsibility of religious instruction to educational institutions.
The kindergarten teacher who requested anonymity found the separate lessons disruptive, as only 10 percent of her classes attend them.
"It is totally unnecessary,” she said. “Kids are taught much more about religious holidays through a regular curriculum."
Freedom to publicly express religious beliefs was suppressed during the communist era when Bosnia was part of the former Yugoslavia, prior to its bloody break-up.
A religious revival occurred along with the inter-ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, when faith was often abused to aggravate divisions.
Another eyebrow-raising move may have fanned the fire over the religion lessons in kindergarten.
At the end of the year, the head of the Sarajevo public kindergarten network, Arzija Mahmutovic, banned New Year's celebrations and Grandfather Frost, a secular version of Santa Claus, ending a cherished, decades-long tradition.
The decision triggered public protests, pressuring Mahmutovic into allowing parents to organise New Year's celebrations in kindergartens by themselves only two days before the holiday.
Nedim Dervisbegovic, a journalist and Muslim father of three, said the developments were worrying for the future of Sarajevo, which is a multi-ethnic city even though it is overwhelmingly Muslim.
"It is yet another step in an obvious attempt to Islamicise the city," he said. "I wonder what will be the next."