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  • June 2019: “Gender ideology” continues to fuel ideological debates in the Croatian society

Despite public debates and actions of several far-rightist political parties and religiously (Catholic) inspired non-governmental organizations and civic initiatives to prevent the ratification of the “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” (known also as the “Istanbul Convention”), the Croatian Government remained firm in its intention to ratify this document. It sees it as a legally binding international legal instrument in combatting violence against women and domestic violence.

The Croatian Parliament ratified the “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” in April 2018, attaching to it the interpretive statement, and it came into force on October 1, 2018. Although the Parliament ratified it with a majority of votes, the ratification intensified both political and public debates, even causing divisions in the ruling right-wing party as fifteen out of fifty-five of its MPs voted against. The most problematic aspect of the Istanbul Convention is that it introduces the concept of “gender”, since violence against women is interpreted as gender-based violence. The opposers argue that the concept of “gender” negates biological differences between men and women, and undermines the traditional family as well as traditional family values. Eventually, as argued by the opposers, the word “gender” is a way of importing alien Western, liberal “gender ideology”, which will endanger the Croatian people and culture, inextricably linked with Catholicism.

The ratification provoked subsequent actions by various religiously inspired NGOs, and mainly far-right political actors. The newly established civic initiative called “The Truth on Istanbul” (in Croatian Istina o Istanbulskoj) initiated a collection of citizens’ signatures to force the Government to convey a national referendum on revoking Croatia’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention. During two weeks in May 2018, they collected 377,635 signatures, which was a bit more than the needed 10% of supporting voters’ signatures. However, the Government asked the ministry of Administration to verify the collected signatures. This eventually established the non-authenticity of a number of signatures, and the final number of 345,942 signatures was below the needed 347,470 signatures. Dissatisfied with such an outcome, and with the fact that the ministry of Administration did not allow them to supervise the verification of the signatures (though they obtained the right to see non-valid signatures after the verification process had been completed), the citizen initiative “The Truth on Istanbul” filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court against the Government. In its ruling, publicized in January 2019, the Constitutional Court, while pointing to some inconsistencies in the way the referendum is regulated in Croatia, did not find that the Government violated Constitution and endangered democratic principles and the rights of citizens.

The Constitutional Court decision gave the Government a possibility to continue with the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. However, debates about “gender” and “gender ideology” continue and, together with debates on abortion, sex education in public schools, as well as debates on the Croatian past (mainly about the role of the Croatian collaborationist state in the Second World War), cause deep ideological divisions and constitute main political cleavages in the society. The Catholic Church is among the important actors in the public arena, and it fully supports civic initiatives on these issues, in particular by condemning the concept of gender and the “gender ideology”. The Church called all MPs, particularly those who openly declare their Catholic belonging, to vote against the ratification of the Convention. Though it is expected that the Church propagates its teaching and its moral values, it can be argued that, as it happens in many other countries, Croatia witnesses a tough “cultural war” in which religious actors have become relevant and powerful players.

  • May 2019: “Marches for Life” and Abortion Issue in Croatia

In May 2019 “Marches for Life”, pro-life rallies that have their roots in the US anti-abortion movement activities, were organized in five Croatian towns: Zagreb, Split, Osijek, Rijeka, and Zadar, in which thousands of supporters asked for the protection of life since the conception. The first such “March for Life” was organized in the Croatian capital Zagreb in May 2016, and has been repeated since every year. In 2017, it was organized in two cities (Zagreb and Split), and in 2018 in three cities (Zagreb, Split and Rijeka). Several NGOs and civic initiatives have been in the background of that, among which the most prominent is “In the Name of Family” (in Croatian U ime obitelji), which in 2013 collected a sufficient number of supporting citizens’ signatures to convey a national referendum, on the basis of which the Constitution was changed to define marriage as solely the union of a man and a woman (see the 2017 debate). Though not being an organizer, the Catholic Church openly supported “Marches for Life”.

The organization of “Marches of Life” coincided with debates on changes of the law on abortion. Though with some amendments, the 1978 abortion law prescribing the right of a woman to terminate pregnancy up to ten weeks following the date of conception, to be performed solely in public hospitals, has been still valid in Croatia. While legally unconditional up to the tenth week of pregnancy, the accessibility of abortion on demand has in reality significantly decreased in recent years, mainly due to the right of doctors to not perform it because of conscientious objection. There are hospitals, particularly in socio-economically deprived regions, in which no one is performing it. Also, the woman has to pay for it and the price varies as it is not nationally regulated. According to official data, the number of abortions has been declining significantly. There is suspicion that not all abortions are registered, or registered as “abortion on demand”. Different attempts were made to question the constitutionality of abortion as the Yugoslav Constitution, which constituted the ground for the 1978 abortion law, does not exist anymore, and the Croatian Constitution from 1990 stipulates the right to life of every human person and forbids the death penalty. This allowed pro-life groups to argue that the unborn life is also a human right protected by the Constitution. Following several constitutional complaints that challenged the right to abort on demand, the Constitutional Court concluded in its ruling from February 2017 that the 1978 law is not unconstitutional, in particular since the law does not jeopardize the just balance between the Constitutional right of women to privacy, liberty, and personality on the one hand, and the public interest to protect the life of the unborn. However, the Constitutional Court also found that in some parts, the 1978 law is not in accordance with the current legislation, and required the Parliament to pass a new law in the period of two years. As explicitly said in the ruling, the new law should find a way to maintain the above-mentioned balance, but also to envisage educational and preventive measures to make abortion an exception.

Two years have passed since this ruling, but the government has failed to adopt a new abortion law. According to the available information, the ministry of Health had formed an expert group to study foreign experiences and to draft a new law, but neither this group nor the ministry itself has come out with any legislative proposal. At the same time, civil society organizations and politicians have put forward different draft laws. As Croatia is facing presidential election in late 2019 and parliamentary election in late 2020, it could be predicted that the Government will not propose any change of the law in the near future. Nevertheless, this also means that the public debates and the pressure on the government will continue, as is visible from “Marches for Life” which seemingly ask only for the protection of life, though this inevitably means a ban on the right to abort. Similarly, “40 days for life”, collective vigils in front of public hospitals that provide abortion on demand, have been organized since 2014. At the same time, this means also that the right of abortion, though legally permitted, will remain difficult to realize in reality.

  • January 2019: Religious education in public school is in accordance with the Croatian Constitution

According to the Constitutional Court ruling from December 2018 (publicized in January 2019), the position of religious education as an elective subject in public schools, and religious education in preschool institutions, does not contradict the constitutional provision of separation between religious communities and the state.

Religious communities in Croatia enjoy a wide range of rights, regulated by four agreements between Croatia and the Holy See (in relation to the position of the Catholic Church) and by the Law on religious communities, and by agreements signed between the government and 19 other (mainly traditional) religious communities. One of the rights enjoyed by the Catholic Church and other religious communities that have signed agreements with the Government is the right to organize religious education in public and private schools if at least 7 pupils opt for it. Though religious education is an elective subject, it becomes a compulsory subject for the pupils who have signed in for it. Exemption is possible if a written request for opting out is submitted to the school principal by the parents (in primary schools) or by both the parents and the pupils (above the age of 15, i.e. those in secondary schools) prior to the beginning of the school year. Religious education is confessional, as religious communities are in charge of the content of textbooks for the purposes of catechism teaching, and of hiring qualified teachers. Upon being granted by the religious community a special permission to teach religion, teachers are employed by schools and are paid by the ministry of Science and Education and have the same full employment rights as other teachers.

Since its introduction in 1991, the position of religious education in public schools has remained a topic of public debates. Some of the critics, who officially filed a constitutional complaint, argued that the fact that confessional religious education is a part of public education violates the constitutional provision of separation of the state and religious communities. In contrast, the Constitutional Court argued that, though the constitution opts for the equality of all religious communities before the law and for the separation of religious communities and the state, it also stipulates that religious communities are free to publicly conduct religious services, open schools, academies, and other institutions as well as welfare and charitable organizations, and to enjoy the protection and assistance of the state in their activities. Consequently, the Court concluded that the Croatian constitution does not ask for the “absolute separation of the religious communities and the state”, and that the religious education in public schools and preschool institutions, as such, does not violate the Constitutional provision. It also restates the former ECtHR ruling in respect of Croatia (Savez Crkava Riječ Života and Others v. Croatia, Application no. 7798/08) which found that, inter alia, religious education in public schools and preschool institutions is an additional right which the Croatian state has voluntarily decided to assure. It is considered an additional right that falls within the broader scope of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Though the ruling of the Constitutional Court solidifies the position of confessional education in public schools for the years to come, some challenging aspects still remain. For example, though the majority of pupils opt for religious education in primary schools (mainly the Catholic education, as Croatia is a country with an important Catholic majority) the fact is that there is no alternative subject provided for pupils not attending religious education, and this might be interpreted as discriminatory for children who are left unattended in the school premises. In secondary schools, this practice disappears, since pupils are required to choose between religious education and a subject on ethics. Discriminatory attitudes, in particular toward new religious movements and atheists, were reported in some Catholic religious instruction textbooks. Discrimination can also be found in the fact that religious communities which do not have agreement with the Government can’t enjoy the right to have religious education in schools. Finally, in recent years, some religious NGOs have started to mobilize supporters among parents to advocate for the rights of parents to have their philosophical and religious convictions respected in the provision of their children’s general education.

Further reading: Staničić, Frane (2018), "Do We Need a Revision of the Treaties with the Holy See?", Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu, 68(3-4):397-429. (in Croatian)

D 19 June 2019    ASiniša Zrinščak

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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