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Coalitionsplit over Orthodox lessons

SERBIA: Gillian Sandford on the new president's push to get religion on the curriculum.

A MAJOR row is brewing within the new government of Serbia over the introduction of religious education in schools.

President Vojislav Kostunica and his conservative Democratic party want Serb Orthodox religious teachings on the curriculum.

But, within the 18 parties that make up the new coalition government, there is wide disagreement about religion as a school subject. Education minister designate Gaso Knezevic, of the Civic Alliance party, said he wanted to see the history and philosophy of all religions taught because Serbia is a secular society.

"Serbia is a multi-faith country and we want a civic society here." He said that the country's constitution would have to be changed if Serbia wants to introduce Orthodox teaching in schools, although he admits reform is likely anyway - for other pressing reasons.

President Kostunica has no remit to bring about the change, because he is President of Yugoslavia, not of the Serbian Republic (part of the Federation of Yugoslavia). But he exercises considerable influence in Serbia because of his massive popularity, and he is deeply religious. "We will take all the president's statements into account," said Gaso Knezevic.

Critics saythe Orthodox Church has played a controversial role over the past 10 years. It did not criticise former president Slobodan Milosevic until 1999, when its board issued an unprecedented statement urging that he should resign for the good of the country.

It also failed to condemn the slaughter during Yugoslavia's wars of dissolution and still refrains from criticism about war crimes.

Plans remain at an early stage, but priests working on proposals say the Orthodox education would be voluntary and parents - or in high school, the teenagers themselves - could choose to opt out. Teaching of other faiths such as Islam or Judaism would be available to the minority in Serbia who are not Orthodox.

While Orthodoxy is a Christian faith, it differs in teaching and practice from Catholicism in several key ways. Beyond scripture, there is no written set of Orthodox church teachings and it has no formalised confession and no sermon within the church service.

After the public debate, Gaso Knezevic believes power-brokers, including prime minister designate Zoran Djindjic, will support the teaching of the history of religions as a compulsory exam subject.

But the debate looks set to fuel yet more divisions in a coalition which analysts say could collapse within six months.

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