By Mary Rezac
Catholic educators in Sweden have denounced a political party’s promise to ban all religious schools as a political maneuver capitalizing on people’s fears in order to obtain votes.
The Social Democratic Party in Sweden has proposed banning all religious schools (known as “confessional schools”) in the country, in what the party says is an attempt at better integration of students.
The party has formed a coalition government with the Green Party, and a general election is to be held in September.
The Social Democrats have expressed concern that confessional schools contribute to the segregation of students, by religion and gender, and that they don’t teach children democratic values.
“In our schools, teachers and principals should make the decisions, not priests or imams,” Minister for Upper Secondary School and Adult Education and Training Anna Ekstrom said at a press conference.
The Social Democrats said last week that the proposed policy would be a priority were they re-elected in September.
But Catholic educators in the country are concerned that the proposal would constitute a wide-ranging infringement on religious freedom and on already-restricted religious education in the country. Religious schools cannot charge tuition, and receive government funding.
“…there is a very negative public debate with a lot of pre-judgements against us and religion in general. We are very worried of course as the proposal is an aggressive assault against our Catholic community,” Paddy Maguire, principal of Notre Dame Catholic School in Gothenburg (located fewer than 300 miles southwest of Stockholm), and Daniel Szirányi, a board member of the same school, said in a joint statement.
Religious education in the country is already under strict restrictions. Current law in Sweden does not allow for catechesis or prayer to take place during regular school hours – it must take place either before or after school, on a voluntary basis.
However, Maguire told CNA that most people in Sweden are unaware of this law, that religious schools also follow the state-issued curriculum, or how religious schools are run in general.
“We have to (abide by) Swedish law, they don’t understand that. They just think we’re run by priests and imams, as they put it,” Maguire said.
Maguire added that the issues that the Social Democrats want to solve are problems that are occurring in Muslim schools, “but they are too cowardly to say so.”
Sweden, which has a historically open-door policy for asylum seekers, saw a dramatic increase in Muslim refugees from countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the past few years, with numbers more than doubling between 2014 and 2015 alone.
This dramatic increase in the number of Muslims in Sweden, and practices of some of their schools – such as sex segregation – is the primary motivation behind the religious school ban, Maguire said.
Rather than fixing individual problems, however, “they want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” she said.
Kristina Hellner, communications officer for the Diocese of Stockholm, told CNA, “It’s presented as a quick and simple solution to a problem that is quite limited.”
“The absolute majority of the religious schools in Sweden show excellent results but a small number of them (and these are Islamic schools) have had different kinds of problems. Instead of doing something about these specific schools, certain politicians would like to solve it by closing all religious schools,” she said.
There are 71 religious schools in the country, of which 59 are Christian, 11 are Muslim, and one is Jewish.
Hellner added that Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm will be working closely with other Christian groups in Sweden to oppose this proposal “with one voice through the Christian Council.”
If the ban were to be enacted, the Socialist Democrats have said that they would make the religious schools into secular schools. However, Maguire noted that most Christian schools would be forced to close, as they are tied to trust funds, through which the schools promised to provide a Christian education.
This would leave approximately 10,000 students without a school, a number the public school system is not adequately prepared to absorb, she said.
“It’s a badly sorted out policy, it’s just a play for populism as we see it,” Maguire said.
Thus far, the proposal is supported by the Social Democrats, the Left Party, and some of the Liberals. The Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats support confessional schools. Some among the Liberals support a policy that would maintain existing religious schools, but would prevent new ones from being founded.
The Green Party and the Centre Party have remained neutral on the issue.
Maguire said she didn’t believe the policy would ultimately pass, because the Social Democrats are losing political power, while right wing parties are gaining power. The Social Democratic Party has lost support in recent polls to the Moderate Party, the largest group in the opposition.
However, she added that educators and Catholic leaders in the country are prepared to fight the proposal all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, and to fight for the rights of parents, designated by the United Nations, to send their children to schools with distinct religious or philosophical leanings.