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Planned government education reforms to modernize curricula and overhaul religious instruction are sparking a hot debate in Romania on the role of religion in schools.
"Religious education here indoctrinates, fuelling prejudice against other faiths and against sexual minorities," Smaranda Enache, co-president of human rights group Liga Pro-Europa, told Reuters on Friday, August 15.
"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."
The government has proposed education reforms that would introduce alternatives to religion classes.
Under the planned reforms, all religious symbols will 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.
"Some of my classmates push me outside the door before their religion class," said Andrei, a 12-year-old Adventist.
"Others ask me why am I not Orthodox, the same way the priest had asked my parents," added the young boy, who did not give his last name, fearing problems at his school near Bucharest's city centre.
"God helps me forgive them, but I don't like these jokes."
But under pressures from the powerful Orthodox Church, the government dropped the proposal of introducing alternatives to religious classes.
"The values offered by religious education are needed desperately ... in times of aggressive and materialist individualism," said Patriarch Daniel, the head of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Around 90 percent of Romania's population belong to the Orthodox Church.
Three-quarters say they trust the Church, making it Romania's most popular institution while only one in five people trusts parliament.
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 education 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".
But 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," said political analyst Bogdan Teodorescu.
"They rarely oppose the views of the church."
Research/Compilation by APD Switzerland, Basel