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Religious education in Bulgaria

Historical background

After the liberation of Bulgaria (1878), religious education was organized according to the confessional lines inherited from the Ottoman Empire, i.e. its supervision was entrusted to the corresponding religious leadership. In state schools, however, only Eastern Orthodoxy, “the dominating religion” under the first Bulgarian Constitution (1879-1947), was taught. Meanwhile, religious minorities received the right to organize their own faith instruction in private schools (Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish). Correspondingly, the state budget covered only the lessons in Orthodoxy, while those in the other religious traditions were paid by their own financial sources. Another important difference concerned the teaching staff. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was never allowed to appoint clerics as faith instructors in the state schools, so Orthodoxy was taught only and solely by secular teachers. In the private schools of the religious minorities, however, this education was in the hands of religious ministers (imams, priests, nuns, etc.). At the same time, the students in public schools who did not belong to Orthodoxy were exempted from the religious lessons.

Despite the constitutional and financial advantages, the religious instruction in Orthodoxy remained quite underdeveloped in pre-communist Bulgaria. Until 1939, it was limited to the second, third and fourth school grades and was taught one hour per week. It was spread over two more grades in High schools during World War II. As a result, when the Bulgarian Communist Party ceased to exercice the power in the country, the local Orthodox Church had only a feeble experience in the sphere of religious education. Its attempts to develop a kind of Sunday schools in the mid-1940s were systematically obstructed by the communist regime and were ultimately banned in February 1949, when the Law on Religious Denominations was adopted.

In addition, the religious denominations in pre-communist Bulgaria had a network of schools for professional training of their ministers. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church had two seminaries and several schools for priests and church singers. The Catholic Church also organized such seminaries in the interwar period. In its turn, the Muslim community had one high religious school and courses for imams. At the same time, only the Christian communities had clerics and ministers with university diploma. Until 1917, most Bulgarian Orthodox clerics with higher diploma were graduates of Russian ecclesiastical academics. After the Bolshevik revolution, however, they had to look for alternative training. Many went to Germany or Switzerland where they graduated in Protestant theological faculties. In 1923, they were also given the chance to study in Bulgaria, where a Faculty of Theology was established at Sofia University. As a university structure, it enjoyed administrative and financial independence from the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, but its curricula remained limited to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. No other religious denomination received an opportunity to develop its own theological studies at a university level.

Religious education in post-communist Bulgaria

After the fall of communism, religion reappeared in the public square. The change provoked attempts to organize religious classes in public schools. The first religious classes were organized in the autumn of 1996 as a pilot project in selected kindergardens in Sofia. In 1997, a special “Commission on religion” was set up at the Ministry of Education, its mission being to prepare a curriculum for the study of religion in public schools. In school year 1997/98, “Religion” was introduced in public schools as a facultative discipline for the second, third and fourth grades. In the following school year, the teaching of religion was expanded and involved students from the first eight grades. In 1999, facultative lessons in religion were also organized for the Muslim students in the regions with important Muslim population.
To a great degree, the revival of religious education in public schools was stimulated by the changes in the university curricula. The Faculty of Theology, which in 1951 was separated from Sofia University and transformed into an ecclesiastical academy under the supervision of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, was restored in 1991 and reintegrated in Sofia University. The same year, another Orthodox Theological Faculty was set up at the University of Veliko Tarnovo. The Muslim community also restored their High School in Islamic Studies, closed by the communist regime. In 1998, it was developed into a Higher Institute for Islamic Studies. In turn, the Evangelical churches in Bulgaria also established a Higher Institute for Biblical Studies in 1999. Until now, however, only Orthodox theology has its place in Bulgarian universities: the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies and the Higher Institute for Biblical Studies have accreditation only for bachelor programs. Therefore, their graduates often continue their studies abroad as the Bulgarian universities do not provide master programs in non-Orthodox theologies.
The adoption of the Denomination Act (December 21, 2002) brought about a new stage in the development of religious education in Bulgarian public schools. It was accompanied by amendments of the Law on the Educational Degrees, Minimum Disciplines and School Curricula. As a result, “Religion” was included in the school curricula as one of the eight obligatory educational-cultural areas, together with social sciences and civil education (Article 10 §4). It added classes in the mother tongue and religion to the so-called “optional mandatory disciplines” which set up the minimum of hours necessary for receiving a certain degree of education (Article 10 §3).

In 2003, the Rules for the application of the Law of People’s Education were changed as well. They allowed the study of “Religion” as an “optional mandatory” or “free-choice optional” discipline in all public schools (Article 4 §3). On this basis, the religious classes were expanded and embraced all school years (I-XII grades). The rules instruct “Religion” to be studied in the terms of philosophy, history and culture through the educational material distributed in different school disciplines (Article 4 §2). On June 23, 2003, the Ministry of Education and Science issued Instruction No. 2 concerning the study of religion in public schools. It foresees two types of classes to be organized: “Religion” and “Religion-Islam” (Article 3 §3). The latter was specifically designed for Muslim students. Following this confessional approach, Article 11 defines that the graduates of the faculties of Orthodox theology and the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies are the only professionals eligible to teach these disciplines.

In 2007, a Public Council, appointed by the Minister of Education and Science, missioned an interdisciplinary team of scholars to elaborate a new concept for religious education in public schools. This concept became the first one to take seriously the legal framework of religious education in public schools. It paid attention not only to the national legislation but also to all international acts ratified by Bulgaria. The Council did not propose a mechanical restoration of the pre-communist models nor the imitation of the existing models in other Orthodox countries such as Greece, Romania and Russia, but took into consideration the specific features as well as the weaknesses and strengths revealed during the first decade of the religious education in Bulgaria (1997-2007). It also respected the right of the religious communities and institutions to organize their own Sunday schools or seminars in parallel to religious classes in public schools. Because of the strong resistance of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Chief Mufti’s Office, however, the concept was declined and the previous form or religious education has been preserved.

In conclusion, despite its initial success, religious education in Bulgaria did not enjoy great success among students. In 1998/99 the religious lessons were attended by 25,000 students, but in 2006 the number dropped to 14,000. During the following years, the number of students enrolled in religious classes in Bulgarian public schools has never exceeded 2 per cent out of the total number of students.

For further information see:
 Histro P. Berov, "Religion in the public education system of Bulgaria", in Gerhard Robbers (Hrsg.), Religion in Public Education – La religion dans l’éducation publique, European Consortium for Church and State Research, Trier, 2011, pp. 73-86,
 Daniela Kalkandjieva and Maria Schnitter, "Teaching Religion in Bulgarian Schools: Historical Experience and Post-Atheist Developments", in Adam Seligman (ed.), Religious Education and the Challenge of Pluralism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 70-95,
 Rositsa Atanasova, "Citizenship Education and Muslims in Bulgaria", in Ednan Aslan and Marcia Hermansen (eds.), Islam and Citizenship Education, Wiener Beiträge zur Islamforschung, Springer, 2015, pp. 149-159.

D 7 January 2014    ADaniela Kalkandjieva

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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