Today, Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou suggested to the Ministry of Education that the habit of inviting a Greek-Orthdox clergyman to high-schools for confession should be abandoned since it is, firstly, against the religious freedoms of children and of their parents, and secondly, in contrast with the policy of religious neutrality that the state promotes (or ought to do so anyway). The Ministry, responding to a parent who complained, has supported voluntary confession under the permission of the headmaster. Thankfully, Savvidou made it clear that the invitation of clergymen in school premises, puts pressure upon children to engage in the practice of confession and is therefore a source of exclusion and discrimination.

What strikes me the most is that in 2011, we are engaging in debates that have been long settled in other developed countries. Religion for example, has long been identified as a comprehensive doctrine whose political nature makes it impossible to confine at the level of the private sphere, but whose public articulation must be limited at the level of the civil society and not at the institutions of the post-secular state (to use Habermas’ terminology) because otherwise it would pose a thread to the individual freedoms of citizens.

Citizens have the right to give their children any religious upbringing they see fit. They also have the right to promote and support their religious beliefs at the societal level. When it comes to the state, religious citizens have the duty to translate their religious demands to secular language in order to be comprehensible by every citizen, either religious or secular. Allowing a clergyman to exercise religious practices within the premises of the public school is a direct intervention in this process of religious-to-secular translation and a definite blow to religious freedom. How is a parent free to pass on to his/her offspring his/her religious convictions, if the state arbitrarily allows religious-specific clergymen to influence through peer pressure their son or daughter and at the same time, how does the state respect all citizens (and their religious convictions) if it promotes the interests of a specific religion?

In order for these freedoms to be protected, the state must remain neutral against all religions. In order for citizens to have equal public space to promote and maintain their religious doctrines, the institutions of the state that are (amongst other things) frameworks for cooperation, must not favor any religion. This fundamental principle of religious neutrality is often ignored by the Cypriot state, which has been consistently biased in favor of the Greek-Orthodox church.

Every person who respects the choices of their fellow citizens has the duty to defend their fundamental right of choice and freedom of religion, irrespective of his or her religious beliefs. Religion is a source of individual preference. The institutions of the state must be able to maintain our ability to exercise our individual preferences. Religious representatives, whether Christian or otherwise, have no place within the public school.