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Swedish school criticised for prayer service

The Swedish Schools Inspectorate (Skolinspektionen) has criticised Borås municipality in western Sweden for breaching regulations banning religious services at end of term celebrations.

Swedish school criticised for prayer service
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Pupils at Gånghester school in the municipality attended an end-of-term service in June at the local church in a service conducted by a pastor. One of those in attendance filed a complaint with the inspectorate after pupils were encouraged to join in prayer.

“It is important that schools shape the end of term so that all can take part in such a happy occasion – pupils, parents and staff,” inspectorate lawyer Anna-Lena Olsson told The Local on Thursday.

“Parents should be able to trust that when they send their children to school, they are assured that children are not affected in one or other [religious] way of thinking.”

The inspectorate has established in several rulings that holding end-of-term celebrations on church premises is not itself in breach of the curriculum or the constitution, nor is the presence of a religious leader, but it has stipulated that the occasion should not be an expression of a particular religious faith.

“The line for when end of term celebrations are to be considered an expression of religious faith has to be drawn on a case by case basis, and here we decided that prayer has to be considered to be a confessional element,” Olsson said.

In its defence, Borås told the inspectorate that the programme for the end-of-term celebrations had been discussed and decided upon within the school council, on which parents from each class are represented.

Meanwhile, the school confirmed that all religions are taught during the school year and argued that this negated the possibility that pupils could be influenced in any particular religious direction.

“The main ingredient of the end-of-term celebrations was that pupils in every class are given the possibility to express their joy and create a pleasant atmosphere by singing summer songs,” the municipality wrote in a submission to the inspectorate, arguing that the prayer element of the proceedings was “short and well adapted.”

The inspectorate bases its decisions on a series of legal documents, including the schools law, as well as the national curriculum.

The Swedish constitution stipulates that public services should work against discrimination on the grounds of, among others, religious faith. The constitution protects individuals from being obliged to reveal their position in political, religious or cultural matters.

The right to freedom of religion, as is the right not to follow any religion, is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (1994), to which Sweden is subject.

The schools law stipulates that all children of school age must participate in organised activities and according to the school curriculum end of term celebrations are to be considered part of regular teaching. The curriculum requires that compulsory schooling should be “non-confessional…objective and comprehensive.”

The inspectorate has thus criticised Borås, calling for the municipality to submit a report by February 2011 detailing measures taken to address the issue as a result of the decision.

According to the local Borås Tidning, Lena Sundbaum, the recently appointed principal of Gånghester school, confirmed that the celebration at the end of the autumn term will be held in the school’s sports hall.

Independent faith schools are permitted in Sweden and while they are able to adopt a more distinct religious character, teaching is subject to the same requirements and the schools are subject to the oversight of the inspectorate.

“Schools can have religious elements and profiles – there are a number of schools in Sweden with Christian and Muslim profiles – but teaching has to be non-confessional and objective,” Olsson told The Local.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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