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The only EU member state without a mosque

Why I believe we can’t truly speak about the religious freedom in my country

Strong lines to write, even after communism my country changed regarding to the religious freedom, yet, cultural background and other aspects cause Slovakia is the only EU member state without an official mosque.

I have participated in the international seminar on religious freedom this week and was speechless when some Slovak representatives claimed we live in a society where anybody can practice their religion freely. Here are several facts to prove this statement is wrong and religious freedom is not universal in Slovakia.

Islam is not a registered religion in Slovakia and Muslims are not receiving any financial aid from the state, they cannot teach their religion in schools and have no possibility to found their own school.

One question is if they want to, but bigger universal question, if they are allowed to.

History of Slovakia is connected to the religion of Islam through the age of the Ottoman Empire. During those days people from this region fought hard against the Turks and many songs, or lyrics, from this age are popular even these days, used mainly by the populist political parties to gain more support from the very conservative Slovak society.

Number of Muslims in Slovakia vary, the official numbers are very low, the estimated number is around 5 000 individuals. According to IOM, most legal migrants are from Afghanistan, Viet Nam, Lybia, Egypt, Albania, Turkey, Syria or Iraq. Migrants who came to Slovakia before 1989 as foreign students created a base for the arrival of new migrants. Those who stayed in Slovakia joined the society and engaged in the country’s economic activity as doctors, technical professionals and translators from Arabic or other languages. Before 2015 people from Asia and the Middle East were known in Slovakia also through their kitchen. Mainly Vietnamese restaurants and Kebabs are very popular.

The atmosphere of a peaceful coexistence with minor extremist attacks was known before the widespread of ISIS and terrorist attacks through the media. The political situation has changed, nationalists (The Slovak National Party) and the far-right political party (People’s Party Our Slovakia) was elected to the Slovak parliament and most of foreigners with darker skin have become a threat in the eyes of many.

Marian Kotleba, leader of the far-right “People’s Party Our Slovakia”

There were attempts to ban the construction of mosques in Slovakia or to ban wearing a burqa through the legislation in 2017. Several decision makers and politicians saw the introduction of a new legislation against Muslim believers as an opportunity, while spreading fear and disinformation. This was not only the case of Marian Kotleba, leader of the far-right “People’s Party Our Slovakia”, but also MEP from other parties. MEP’ rhetoric was often built on connecting Islam, Muslims, refugees and migrants from the Middle East to terrorism and violation of human rights in general.

This had a strong impact on the wide public opinion, which had just pieces of information.

Latest European Values Study made by the Slovak Academy of Sciences from December 2017 shows, that 54.4% of Slovaks do not want to live next to a Muslim.

Between 1991 and 2008, the number of those who would not want a Muslim, Jew, Roma, or another race next to his/her own house was declining. For Muslims, that drop was from 26% to about 20%. However, past years and the situation with refugees and migration, communicated through extremists and tabloids have seized together with a general increase in Islamophobia in our society, which meant that in 2017, 54.4% of respondents did not want a Muslim to be their neighbor. The same trend was also seen for immigrants and foreign workers, with less than 20% of the population being negatively attracted to them in 2008, more than 43% of respondents in 2017. For Jews, the reluctance to have neighbors grew from less than 10% (2008) to the current 22.7%.

Interesting information from this Study is, that the lowest share (15%) of people who did not want a Muslim to be their neighbor was in the Nitra region, which welcomed 149 refugees from Iraq (only Christians were accepted) between 2015 and 2016. Nitra region had a personal experience during the hyped situation with migrants and refugees and this could affect the public opinion. Just for the explanation, number 149 in Slovakia means a lot. Looking at the last year’s official statistics, from January to June 2017, the Slovak Republic granted asylum to 18 people.

From the overall number of 58 559 applications for asylum in the SR since 1993, asylum was granted to 838 people and 702 people were provided subsidiary protection.

Christianity is the most widespread religion in Slovakia, with about 70% of people identify themselves with this religion, while 60% belongs to the Catholic church. Therefore, it is important what the Slovak Bishops and Priests say about other religions. While several Priests, Church associations and Catholic Orders are leading ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, trying to spread the message of acceptance and peace, the official statement of the Catholic Church in Slovakia is not so warm. The press release from February 2017 starts with a sentence: If we want to look for a way of coexistence with Islam, we should not forget that Christianity is in constant conflict with Islam, despite all dialogues. Later can be read: It is clear that most of the migrants who have come to Europe in recent years are Muslims. It should also be noted that in recent years, in Europe, we have witnessed a number of brutal terrorist attacks whose players have reported to Islam. These facts can logically lead to the conclusion that the larger the Muslim community, the likelihood of such violent acts increases. In such a situation, it is legitimate to ask about the nature of a religion to which these people report.

If such a strong opinion-maker in Slovakia connects Islam to terrorism, the majority in Slovak society starts to have the same affiliation.

The actual viewpoint in the ranks of the Catholic Church believers shows, that while they want to help those in need, including refugees, they would not accept them in Slovakia.

Refugees are usually described as males from the Middle East, Muslims, Arabs. And for many Catholics, Islam is equal to violence against others and total disappearance of human rights.

The most widespread misinformation about Islam is linking jihad with terrorism. Journalists, politicians, ordinary conspirators and Islamophobes consider the Islamic concept of jihad as evidence that Islam is a religion of violence. Anti-Islamic opinions are accepted by the Slovaks mainly because there is insufficient education about Islam, a media image of Islam and Muslims, prejudices about Muslims, which are spread by the media, politicians, Slovak folkloric songs (a strong element in the Slovak culture) or even the Catholic Church. Islamophobia in Slovakia, even in the region of all four Visegrád countries, helps that truthful information about Islam is almost inaccessible to most of the population. Many influencers including journalists, politicians, conspiracy sites and magazines usually work with myths, lies and misinformation about Islam.

The Slovak society lacks personal experience, or even relevant information about Islam.

People are not afraid while speaking about Judaism and Jews, but still have some prejudices. The same applies to Roma and people from Africa. But while speaking about Muslims and Islam, many face the fear they cannot describe. It is a hidden threat, a distant enemy that should be kept behind the Slovak, or even better the EU borders. When discussing this topic, it is clear that the enemy is unknown and people have wrong or mixed information. But since their fear is supported by tabloids, politicians and even the official Church, they tend to believe the threat is real.

During one of my trips to Africa. Zanzibar, 2016. Photo credit: Tomas Horvath

I believe more formal and non-formal education is needed, mainly among young people, who were born into a global society. They should have an opportunity to discover different cultures and religions and through critical thinking based on relevant information, analyze the current situation touching their faith, religion or nation.

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Tomas Horvath

Tomas Horvath

Social Entrepreneur, Eco-Social Innovator @unleashlab Alumni, Peace builder @unaoc Alumni, NGO Manager - International Aid & Social Development

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