Friday 10 August 2018

“If this goes through, it’s equivalent to North Korea”

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Daniel Szirányi, member of the board of the Catholic school of Notre Dame, in Gothenburg, Sweden, regarding the Social Democrat Party’s proposal to close all religious schools in Sweden.

Esta é uma transcrição complete, no inglês original, da minha entrevista a Daniel Szirányi, do Conselho de Administração da escola católica de Notre Dame, em Gotemburgo, Suécia, sobre a proposta do Partido Social Democrata sueco de fechar todas as escolas religiosa naquele país. A reportagem pode ser lida aqui.

What is going on exactly?
The current situation is that Sweden organizes its school system mainly based on state schools and there are 71 confessional schools. 59 of these are Christian, 11 are Muslim and there is one Jewish school. Three of them are Catholic schools. The one I represent has been present in Sweden for approximately 150 years and it is the biggest in the Nordic countries.

We have a very good relationship with society and it has been ongoing for a long time, and the current government, which consists of the Social Democrat Party and the Greens... On the 9th of September we have elections in Sweden, so there is a heated political debate. The Social Democrat Party, which is the major party in the Government have made a new proposal which means they want to close down confessional schools altogether. The reason behind that is mostly because in recent years we have had major immigration into Sweden and there are different issues with Muslim immigrants, and maybe also from other confessions, and there is a party called the Sweden Democrats, which opposes immigration, and they are taking loads of voters from the Social Democrat Party, which has been the traditional big party in Sweden. This is a typical move to try and gain back some of the voters.

Unfortunately, this affects all confessions and religions, and the Christian schools would all be hit by it. If the law goes through we would cease to exist. This is the major problem.

Fortunately, currently there is no political majority in Parliament. The only parties which are interested in this type of radical legislation is the Social Democrats, supported by the former communist Left Party and also the Liberal Party, which is a smallish socialist-liberal party. But the three do not have a majority currently.

Nevertheless, it is a little problematic for us, currently, working with schools and children and education, being in the press, in the center of a political election campaign is not what we would like. Unfortunately, prejudices are up in the air, which we always have to, somehow, fight back against.

We do have the legislation on our side, so it would not be possible to close the school, nevertheless people, and our teachers and employees, are obviously nervous, and nobody knows what will happen.

So this decision seems to be a way to gain back voters from the Sweden Democrats, but this is not a cause espoused by the Sweden Democrats, is it?
When the Social Democrat congress decided this we began inviting politicians to our schools to show them that we are a normal school, with about 450 pupils, nothing to be afraid of. But they told us, unfortunately, that they wanted to close the school. So after that we called every party and had dialogue with every party to understand what position each party had. The Sweden Democrats are not planning to close any Christian or religious schools, what they told is that they would like to elaborate if there is a possibility to limit the creation of new religious schools. But it is a vague definition. After the elections they would like to see if that is possible, but that would not affect the current existing Christian or Catholic schools.

You said there have been concerns about immigration. Have there been any problems with Muslim schools?
I cannot tell you if there have been... I have not heard of that.

Obviously there are the classical problems that we see in other countries with segregation in the big cities, and of course people might be skeptical against schools where children are dressed in a certain way, but I cannot point out any specific incident.

But the background of what the socialist ministers are saying is that they want to avoid further segregation, they believe that when you have religion based schools people do not integrate into Swedish society, and that increases segregation. The problem is that we would, from our point of view, say the opposite. We are actually helping a large part of the Christian immigrant community to help them into Swedish society, so it is the exact opposite. For example, our Catholic School of Notre Dame, in Gothenburg, has about 80 to 90% immigrant families, from the Middle East, but also South America, Africa and Eastern Europe, from different nationalities, and this is a perfect way to understand how Swedish Society works and help them on their path into higher education.

We have been in the media several times now and our main point is that the main argument the socialist government has for this proposal does not make sense, because we actually help to defuse segregation. Our school is in the middle of the city, it is a wealthy area, and people from all around the city are coming to the school, so it is the exact opposite of segregation.

In our case we are helping society to diminish segregation.

Do you have non-Catholic students also at your school?
We have a small majority of Catholics and a large minority of Orthodox. Then we have a few Muslim families also.

We have very good relations with them. In many of these Muslim countries they have Christian schools which are considered to be strong schools, which is why they are happy to have their children with us, even though they are Muslims. So in our case we have a very mixed population.

Just to clarify... The Social Democrat Party is left of center, correct?
Yes. We have three parties to the left...

The Left Party is the Ex-Communist Party, which is out of Government, but they are supporting the government. The Government consists of the Social-democrats, which are around 30%, they are historically the largest party, classical socialists and members of the European Socialist movement, and then we have the Green Party, which is between the communists and the socialists. Those three are on the left side.

Then we have three small center-right parties, the Christian Democrats, the Center Party and the Liberal Party, and then we have the larger Conservative-Liberal Party, which is moderate and has about 25%.

Finally, we have the third group, which is the Sweden Democrats, which are difficult to position as left or right, and it looks, from the polls, like they are going to win the election.

The big question that everybody asks is who will dare to join them in a coalition if they win.

When they say they want to close down the school, does that mean to literally close it down, or just remove public funding?
The rhetoric in the media is that they don't want to allow us to exist.

And keep in mind that the Swedish legislation is already very tough on religion and schools already. It is a very secular society, and we are, for example not allowed to have any religious impact during school hours in our Catholic school. So the only time we are able to have a morning mass, is before or after school hours. This is very important to understand, if you compare to a Catholic country such as Portugal, for example.

Regarding Public funding, being on the board, and based on my conversations with the principal and the management, that is actually what we are afraid of, that this particular legislation might not go through, but we will have limitations on funding, this and that, or other restrictions, and that obviously could impact our activity in a negative way.

Sweden has a state religion, the Lutheran Church...

Some years back once you were born you were automatically considered a member of the Church, but now that is not the case.

But there is a relationship. I imagine many of these schools are Lutheran, have they spoken out?
Yes, and we are collaborating very well with each other. And what is nice to see is that many of these Christian schools are really strong schools, top schools in Sweden, and it is difficult to argue that they should close down, when their performance is so strong. So the clergy from both sides have spoken out together and we, in the schools, have helped each other out.

Do you know about any other country in Europe which has no confessional schools?
We did some research; it might not be complete... My family is from Hungary and I suffered under a communist dictatorship, but the only countries we have found which have these sort of limitations, they are very few in the world, and these are all dictatorships. We have not found any European country which has a full prohibition against Christian or religious schools.

What is important for the Swedish public, regardless of your opinion on religion, is to understand that if this goes through it is a very radical decision, equivalent to North Korea. People need to understand how severe this topic is. And I am not sure people are aware of this.

You seem to be confident that you have legislation on your side. You mean European legislation as well, correct?
Yes. The European Convention grants the freedom of each family to choose the school and the education of the Children, based on their faith. That is written in law, and Sweden has signed this Convention also, so it is valid in Sweden.

Now obviously, as you know, the national legislation can always be twisted back and forth, and this is what we hope they will not do, but keep the hard line and keep the European legislation alive in Sweden too.

But we are not there yet. Now we have a political campaign in Sweden, and that is why this topic is heated. I am not sure... I really hope it will be less important later on, once the elections are done, but obviously, if we are still threatened, we definitely will need to take legal action and get legal help, jointly with other Christian schools.

Obviously this is a threat to religious freedom in Sweden. Is it one of many? Are there other acts of hostility, or is this a unique situation?
This is the major topic when it comes to issues against religion, nevertheless a few months ago there was an attempt against a Synagogue in Gothenburg... There are some negative activities going on, but I would not say that there is a significant religious threat, other than the discussion about the schools.

It is not so easy to be a religious person in Sweden, because it is a heavily secular and atheistic country, even though we have a State religion. It is difficult to defend the faith, but this is how we live, and this is why it is so important to have confessional schools that provide an alternative for families which are not convinced by atheistic education.

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