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Hodmezovasarhely (Hungary) (AFP)
With folded hands, children line church pews as nuns lead morning prayers in Hungary.
“Jesus loves me … Jesus is happiness”, they sing, applauding the hymns.
This is not a scene from Sunday Mass, but from an elementary school where students start the day with prayer as part of the government’s efforts to re-Christianize education.
The ten-year-old campaign was launched by Hungary’s wood-fired nationalist prime minister as part of his “conservative revolution” in the eastern European country that Pope Francis will visit on Sunday.
Result: more crosses in the classes and daily schedules punctuated by prayer and catechism.
It has also led to more government funds earmarked for Christian schools – often attended by wealthier students – at the expense of public schools where the poorest children are enrolled.
For Andrea Magyar, director of Ferenc Liszt, the change is welcome.
Her school of 400 people in the town of Hodmezovasarhely, in the south-east of the country, has been under the direction of Dominican nuns since September 2020.
She says relations are “less bureaucratic and warmer” with the diocese compared to the centralized education authority, and insists that the curriculum itself “has not changed.”
Religious elements – crosses and catechisms – are not compulsory, she says, and a new generation of young teachers have helped revive the school.
The same goes for government grants, which allowed her to refresh the paint and plan other renovations, she told AFP in early September, speaking under an old oak tree in the sunny courtyard of school.
– “Christian civilization” –
The so-called re-Christianization of Hungarian schools was led by controversial leader Viktor Orban, who came to power amid a wave of populist support in 2010.
Self-proclaimed defender of “Christian civilization”, he opposed secularizing trends in education elsewhere in Europe, promising to reverse an abolition of religion during the Communist era in Hungary.
Instead, his government has overseen a growing number of educational institutions under the authority of the Church.
He may want to show off this change on Sunday when he meets the Pope in Budapest.
Its former chief of staff Janos Lazar declared in 2016 that “education must be the business of ecclesiastical institutions” in the service of two essential objectives: “that children learn to be good Christians and good Hungarians”.
In 2018, 18 percent of schools in Hungary were Catholic, up from 9.4 percent in 2010 when Orban took office.
But the rise in church-run schools may not reflect a more godly society, said Kriszta Ercse, a sociologist at the Civil Platform for Public Education.
In the last national census in 2011, only 39% of Hungarians identified themselves as Catholics and 11% as Protestants. Among adherents, only 15 percent attended religious services.
A new census has been delayed by the pandemic, but experts believe those numbers have not changed significantly.
Instead, Ercse says parents are drawn to denominational schools because they outperform public schools – in part because of the more generous public funding they receive, according to Ercse.
– ‘Ghettoization’ –
This is why Ildiko sends her children aged seven and 14 to Ferenc Liszt Primary School in Hodmezovasarhely – free like public schools across the country.
She praises “the excellent atmosphere and the committed teachers” of the school since its takeover by the Church, and says she is “very satisfied” with the changes.
But all is not positive.
Anxious to maintain their academic performance, some religious schools actively seek students from well-off families to the detriment of the poorest children and the Roma minority.
Ercse calls this a “drastic form of selection” and warns that it could lead to “ghettoization”.
“The government is leaving public schools to rot,” she said.
The evidence is already emerging.
According to the Tax Council, an independent auditor of public finances, during the 2017-18 school year, religious schools received the equivalent of 570 euros per student.
Public schools only got 25 percent of that amount.
The mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, Peter Marki-Zay, is also concerned about the “segregation” that the system could promote.
A Catholic himself, Marki-Zay has said he supports schools that teach Christian values.
But it does not support a two tier system.
“I find it unfair that religious schools receive more government grants than public schools,” he told AFP.
© 2021 AFP