School parades and religion classes are two of the thorniest issues in Greece’s education debate and are well-suited to grandstanding and unfounded declarations about what must or must not be done. One person will express frustration at parades, saying they are ridiculous and forced, while another will say they inspire pride and emotion. How should children be taught about religion at school? What would happen if religion classes were made completely optional? What would happen at Greek schools if the number of non-Orthodox Christian pupils were to increase significantly?
The European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece this week after the parents of two schoolgirls on the islands of Milos and Sifnos filed a suit, saying that in order for their daughters not to have to attend religion classes they would have to provide school authorities with solemn declarations claiming that they weren’t Orthodox Christians. The judges ruled that the authorities have no right to oblige citizens to reveal their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
For years, the Greek state has squirmed at taking a position on sensitive educational issues, mindful of public pressure and seeking to keep a balance. Any minister who has ignored the powerful interests and pressure groups behind these issues, meanwhile, has quickly fallen out of favor. The rock is populism and the hard place is clientelist expediency.
The point, however, is whether we can expect to have a functional educational environment without clear rules. Between its tendency to flatter some and dismiss others, between two extremes, the Greek state has an obligation to take a stand and make tough decisions. And the longer that it fails to step up, the more the endless talk, the often toxic talk, will fill the vacuum.
Right now, Education Minister Nikis Kerameus is juggling the two burning issues of parades and religion classes. They fell into her lap in the form of Gordian knots that need decisive action in order to be addressed, action that will inevitably come at a high political price.
The resurgence of the immigration crisis has already upset some of the sensitive balances in the education system and more turbulence lies ahead. This is no time for foot dragging or the usual proclamations that may sound good but mean very little.
Times are tough, not least because there are so many other problems besetting education and they are only getting worse the longer they are allowed to fester. And they’re going to get tougher the closer we get to the bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence in 2021, an event that is expected to unleash patriotic sentiment and its more extreme expressions.