Before the Second World War, two-thirds of Hungarian schools belonged to churches, the bulk of them linked to the majority Catholic religion. When the communists seized power in 1948 they drove out religious education and handed church schools over to the state.
Post-communism, the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) government promised to hand them back. In 1991 the MDF government led by the Catholic Prime Minister J"zsef Antall passed a law calling for confiscated property to be returned to the original owners by the end of 2001. The restitution process has been slow and religious schools still only make up 2 to 3 per cent of the total, although it is believed that this could increase to 10 per cent by the turn of the century.
"After restitution is complete, I don't think patients in religious hospitals will mind being cared for by a nun instead of a nurse," says Tibor Fedor, of the Hungarian ministry of culture. "Only the restitution of schools may cause ideological problems."
The disputes have already begun. In September 1993, the local council in Dabas S ri, near Budapest, handed over the village's only primary school to the Catholic Church without consulting parents, teachers or pupils. The law states that religious education can only be provided where a secular alternative exists. But the nearest state school to Dabas S ri is eight miles away. A public row followed the church takeover, with parents opposed to the plan withdrawing their children from the school. They then set up their own pirate school, run by sacked dissident teachers, in the local pub.
After months of battles, parents and church officials decided to partition the school into secular and religious sections divided by a wall. Last summer parents from the secular side tore down the wall, protesting that they had been given the worst half of the school. Today the division is maintained by ramshackle barricades of old furniture.
"All this mess happened because of narrow-minded people who didn't bother to consult with parents and teachers," says Istv n Garajski, director of the state-run part of the school. "Parents and teachers supported the idea of a religious school in the village but they wanted to have a choice."
Rows such as those in Dabas S ri could be about to spring up all over the country. The Hungarian Teachers' Union is not against religious education in itself but opposes the current restitution law and seeks to preserve freedom of choice. The problem may not be restricted to one-school villages, a spokesman said. Four out of six secondary schools in the industrial town of Miskolc are to be handed over to churches. "There is a danger it could go too far," the union said.
The government, now controlled by the ex-communist Socialist party, has to maintain a delicate balance to satisfy both the religious voters, who switched to the socialists in May 1994, and the core constituency of ex-communist atheists, who are strongly opposed to religious education.
The ministry's answer is to pledge state support for church schools, covering between 60 and 90 per cent of costs. But Tibor Fedor stresses that parents will always have a choice.
Polls show that a majority of Hungarians support a mixed system and some religious schools are being enthusiastically welcomed. The prestigious Attila J"zsef secondary school in Budapest is to be handed over to the Catholic Cistercian order next year. Director Mikl"s P rd nyi expects no protests. "Most parents accept the change. They asked for and received catechism classes in the past."
The churches seem to be enthusiastic about the return of their role in education. Tibor Nagy, deputy bishop of the Hungarian Reform Church, believes the churches have an educational mission to fulfil. "We have to raise the moral level of our nation, which is plagued by western influence," he says.