for AFP on Oct. 8, 2010
Bulgarian Orthodox priests lead a national march in Sofia supporting religious courses in the school curriculum.
SOFIA — Over 5,000 Bulgarians demonstrated Friday in Sofia to demand that religious instruction in this majority Orthodox country become compulsory in schools, police said Friday.
The protesters -- who numbered as many as 10,000 according to organisers -- carried banners and slogans reading "66 years of atheism, that's enough" and deploring "a condemned population without morals."
Bells also rang from every church to accompany the demonstration in downtown Sofia, which was organised by the Orthodox Church.
"We are all worried about juvenile crime, violence in schools and drug use among young people," noted Metropolitan Nikolai, a top Orthodox Church official.
Now the Church wants to make religious instruction compulsory at school, where it is currently optional.
Some 80 percent of Bulgarians traditionally belong to the Orthodox Church. Under a new project by the Holy Synod, the highest authority in the Church, Christian children will learn about the Bible, Muslims about the Koran, and atheists will be taught ethics.
While the communist authorities imposed atheism, many Bulgarians found religion again after the end of the regime, while others turned to superstition.
Optional religious classes, however, are favoured mostly by Muslims, even though they make up just 14 percent of the population: some 20,000 students learn about Islam, but only 3,000 learn about Christianity and hardly anyone takes other religious instruction in school.
Education Minister Sergey Stanishev pointed out that Bulgaria's education system was secular.
"Faith cannot be taught," he said.
Any compulsory religious education "risks turning schools into an arena for inter-religious rivalries," he also warned.