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Kosovo: Religious Tuition Calls Spark Concern

Islamic clerics step up campaign for religious instruction in schools, amid fears it could deepen inter-ethnic divisions.
By Alma Lama

Petrit Carkagjiu is not your average advocate of religious education.


The 26-year-old lead singer of rock band Jericho believes teaching Kosovo's kids about faith can protect from the cultural onslaught of computer games, MTV and blockbuster movies.


"In the transitional phase that Kosovo is going through, where the rule of law is barely functioning, a lot depends on personal responsibility. So if we want to avoid corrupting society, religious and moral teaching in schools would not be so harmful," said Carkagjiu.


The singer's comments are music to the ears of Islamic community leaders in Kosovo, who are stepping up their campaign for religion to be taught in schools, amid fears that it could deepen inter-ethnic divisions in the troubled region.


Islamic clerics spearheading the campaign say they have been encouraged by the support it has gathered in Pristina so far, and will take their petition out into the towns and villages of Kosovo this month.


The campaigners want Muslim and Catholic schoolchildren to be taught courses about their own faiths prepared by leaders from their respective communities.


This means most students will be learning the Koran - 97 per cent of Kosovo Albanians are Muslims, the remainder being Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.


Sabri Bajgora, the chief imam of Kosovo, told IWPR, "We have now collected 100,000 signatures and we intend to pressure the politicians to introduce religious education at elementary and high schools."


Islam took root in Kosovo over 300 years ago, when the province's Ottoman rulers offered the largely Catholic Albanian community strong economic incentives to convert. However, successive governments have banned religion from being taught in Kosovo's classrooms.


Another 700,000 signatures on the petition could change that.


In order for the issue to be brought up for discussion before parliament - a first step towards having the law redrafted - the campaign must show it has the support of at least 800,000 people, or one-third of Kosovo's population of two million.


However, many in Kosovo - including Muslims - are uneasy. They fear the traditionally liberal, heterogeneous values of the province will be radicalised if the Koran starts being taught in the classroom.


"I have read the curriculum that was prepared by the Islamic community and in addition to teaching students about Islam, they will also be asked to perform Islamic rituals in school," said Islam Hasani, a professor of sociology at the University of Pristina.


His concerns were echoed by leaders of Kosovo's Catholic community. Don Nosh Gjolaj, a priest and psychologist based in Pristina, said, "If we separate young students in different groups to learn different religions, you cannot expect religious tolerance in the future."


The head of the Catholic church in Kosovo, Mark Sopi, added that it was not the business of schools to teach faith, "Islamic or Catholic religion can be taught in religious institutions, churches or mosques."


Bajgora, who concedes that Catholic leaders have yet to give the campaign their backing, believes early religious guidance is needed now more than ever before, as drugs, prostitution, alcohol and cults compete for the attention of Kosovar youth.


Hasani dismisses these arguments, saying that religion should not be the only mechanism for safeguarding morality.


Government officials say they have yet to receive a blueprint for the new curriculum from Islamic leaders - but on the basis of what they know so far, they doubt that it will be workable.


Ramush Tahiri, an adviser to the speaker in parliament, said he did not want children to be forced to learn about one faith alone. Moreover, he said, there would be practical difficulties in splitting the schoolchildren into different classrooms to be taught separately.


The government is also likely find fault with the campaigners' demand that the lessons in religion be given by imams and priests, rather than schoolteachers.


But the Islamic clerics are undeterred. The community is to elect a new religious leader in October this year, and some analysts have said the campaign for changing the curriculum may be an early electoral gambit.


The political muscle behind the campaign is limited so far to parliamentary deputy Bajram Cekrezi, whose Party for Justice claims to have rallied eighteen other deputies behind calls for religion to be taught in school.


Alma Lama is a Pristina-based IWPR contributor