Expert Conference discusses “Religiophobia” in Slovakia
By Barbara Grabner, FOREF Slovakia
BRATISLAVA, 10.09.2015 (FOREF) – On September 10, 2015 the Trnava University hosted a conference under the title “Religiophobia: Reality, Prevention and Education”. This is the first time an event of this kind took place in Slovakia. Among the participants were teachers from several theological faculties as well as experts of religious studies, sociologists and anthropologists from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Austria. Most presentations focused on Islam and Judaism. Additionally, animosity towards new religious movements and against Christian civic initiatives in the increasing secular society were also discussed.
As the organizers outlined in their opening remarks, the arrival of crowds of Muslim refugees in Europe made the topic so timely. Xenophobia combined with “religiophobia” are flaring. But such sentiments are not new: Opinion polls conducted in Slovak schools in recent years show that there are anti-Muslim attitudes even among pupils of elementary, grammar and vocational schools. This is a surprising result when considering the fact that there are not many Muslim residents in Slovakia and that there are no substantial problems caused by them. The main reason for this attitude seems to be news reports about radical Jihadist groups abroad, not in Slovakia itself. Due to these fears, large segments of the Slovak population favor a selective policy of accepting only Christian refugees from Syria.
“Religiophobia” is still deeply rooted in Slovak Society
In the past religious conflicts used to be a largely inner-Christian problem, for example when a Catholic married a Lutheran. The problem shifted when new religious movements arrived after the end of Communism and the media reports caused hysteria. The Slovakian Society for the Study of Religion (SSŠN) which was founded in 1992 and is located at the Slovak Academy of Sciences fed the reports with materials gained from Western “cult experts”. In recent years the Society started to heed the opinion of the minority groups in some cases. The main target now are not so much religious minorities than the “individualistic spirituality” of the New Age movement, which was the topic of the Czech cult expert Zdenek Vojtisek. His accusative presentation darkened the otherwise open and friendly atmosphere during the conference.
A step forward towards an open dialogue with minorities was the invitation of representatives of the Bahai, the Unification Church, Zen Buddhism, Islam, Scientology, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Essene Church as panelists. This was a remarkable novelty! As one of the representatives stated, “the conference does not come timely but twenty years too late”.
The public persecution of new religions in the country over the past 20 years was not debated during the conference although some panelists did report how members of their faith communities were harassed because of their affiliation, e. g. how they lost their jobs or their children were mobbed in school.
The official curriculum on Religious Education does not mention unregistered groups or some of the smaller registered groups at all. Most conference participants agreed that education in schools could and should foster more understanding and tolerance towards other faiths. How that can be achieved was however not discussed further. The representative of the Bahai faith reported how their curriculum for Ethics Education in schools has been excluded simply because it came from the Bahai faith. It had met good response from teachers until one parent stirred up anti-cult sentiments and pressured for the withdrawal of the program.
Registration of Religious Associations: Discriminating Legislation
Until recently the Slovak government restricted its dialogue with religious representatives. Public funding is limited to churches and officially registered religious groups, however, many religious associations cannot register because they do not meet the standard of a membership of 20,000. The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom on the surface. But the reality is that the religious registration law strongly disadvantages smaller religious groups. The 18 registered churches and religious groups receive more than 30 million euros in state subsidies. Although the legislation on registration of citizen associations specifically excludes religious groups, some of the smaller religious groups had to register as citizen associations in order to at least obtain a legal status.
Barbara Grabner works as a journalist and serves as FOREF’s correspondent in Slovakia.