STATE institutions including schools should operate as such and not as faithful adherents to religious traditions and practices, Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou said, following complaints that a Nicosia public kindergarten took children to a church to worship the relics of a saint during teaching time.
The report to the education ministry was prepared following a complaint from a civil society group that had itself received a number of complaints from parents. The incident occurred in the previous school year.
“As I have repeatedly stressed schools are a place where views and cultures meet and therefore should remain neutral and impartial,” Savvidou said.
“Participation in religious mysteries or any form of worship events based on religious belief is a personal choice and one for the parents for a minor. These issues must not concern the state, the Church and other religious agencies”.
Savvidou said that based on national and international legislation that any other involvement of the school in faith-based events of any religion goes beyond the educational framework as regards religious education and it unavoidably violates the religious impartiality which civil institutions ought to observe. “State institutions, such as the education ministry ought to act based on the constitution and international law”.
“The organisation on behalf of the school’s management of a church visit during teaching hours and under the supervision of teaching staff cannot be deemed as being in line with the principles of religious freedom and state neutrality towards any religion,” Savvidou said.
This case, she said, concerns a devotional practice that instills and spreads faith in an organised way, within teaching time, under the supervision and guidance of teachers. “But primarily it should not be overlooked that preschoolers were forced to engage in this activity which was organised exclusively on the school’s initiative”.
Suh acts do not fall within the wider religious education acceptable within the school curriculum and make the school a “religious one” and a carrier of traditional and worship practices of a specific religion.
They also affect negatively not only those who are not Christian Orthodox but also those who adhere to this denomination but do not wish for their children to participate “at this tender age” in such events, she said. There are also those, she said, who believe that religion is strictly a matter of private life.
“Even if parents had given permission for this and those who did not wish to participate would be exempt, it would still be not in line with religious impartiality. And this because it was organised by a state institution such as a school, within teaching time and under the supervision of educators”.
Savvidou said the religious neutrality of the state clearly did not mean the elimination of religion from education. For this reason, the state has accepted religious education and incorporated it in the public education system, but without adopting a particular religious or doctrinal direction and without forcing those who do not wish to participate, Savvidou said.
She added that even if pilgrimages to holy relics and other religious events may be organised by the Church based on its rules, state bodies should operate as such “and not as faithful adherents to religious traditions and practices”.
This is not the first time Savvidou issued reports concerning the organisation in schools of religious events, including confessions, and urged the education ministry to take into consideration this report “for further reflection and to take a number of actions based on everything that has been analysed” for the new school year.
The deputy head of the ministry’s primary education department Christos Hadjiathanasiou said that the report was given to them this week and after studying it they would take all necessary measures.
The ombudswoman’s office had also investigated a number of other incidents in schools in 2014 related to the implementation of the ministry’s policy on religious freedom, also mentioned in the US Department of State’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom in Cyprus.
The complaints involved a high school student whom the school’s deputy principal reportedly pressured and threatened when he refused to participate in a school-organised religious service, and in another, a student exempted from religious instruction said he was punished with unexcused absences for not attending religion classes.