The Freedom of Thought Report is a unique worldwide survey of discrimination and persecution against humanists, atheists, and non-religious published by Humanists International. The Report contains an entry for every country in the world. This is the entry for Croatia, edited in September 2021.
Croatia, officially the Republic of Croatia (Croatian: Republika Hrvatska), is a unitary, indivisible democratic, social, and parliamentary constitutional republic. After Croatia formally declared its independence and dissolved its association with Yugoslavia in 1991, the Croatian War of Independence started. The war ended in 1995. The present-day borders of Croatia were established in 1998. Croatia is a member of the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and a founding member of the Union for the Mediterranean.
The majority of the population (86.28%) in Croatia identifies as Roman Catholic. After that, 4.44%, identify as Eastern Orthodox Protestants, and 1.47% as Muslim. 3.81% of the population define themselves as atheists or non-religious, and 0.76% of people are agnostic or skeptic.1 In the Eurostat Eurobarometer Poll of 2005, 67% of the population of Croatia responded that “they believe there is a God” and 7% said they do not believe “there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force,” while 25% expressed a belief in “some sort of spirit or life force.”2
CONSTITUTION AND GOVERNMENT
Following the first multi-party parliamentary elections held in April 1990, the Croatian Parliament adopted a liberal-democratic Constitution.3
Whilst the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of conscience and religion, the free expression of religion or other beliefs (Article 40) and states that all religious communities are equal before the law and separate from the state (Article 41),4 because of other laws, policies, agreements, and social pressures, these rights and equalities are not always upheld in practice.
Relationship with the Catholic Church
Historically, Croatia was known throughout Europe as Antemurale Christianitatis, a bulwark against Ottoman invasion and a defender of Europe’s Christianity. In that spirit, in December 1996 three agreements (“concordats”) were signed between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia. These were: the Accord on cooperation in the field of education and culture (“Ugovor o suradnji na području odgoja i kulture”);5 the Accord on Pastoral Care of Catholics in the armed forces and law enforcement agencies (“Ugovor o dušobrižništvu katoličkih vjernika pripadnika oružanih snaga i redarstvenih službi Republike Hrvatske”);6 and the Accord on Legal Questions (“Ugovor o pravnim pitanjima.)”7 A fourth agreement, on Economic Affairs, (“Ugovor između Svete Stolice i Republike Hrvatske o gospodarskim pitanjima”) was signed and ratified in 1998.8
These agreements were entered into without any public debate or proper information given to the Croatian population. Although the agreements proved controversial owing to great one-time and continuous financial and other burdens the agreements put on the Croatian state (relative to the Croatian government budget), no government of Croatia has attempted to amend them. The agreements put obligations chiefly on the Croatian state, and give the Catholic Church a privileged position with respect to other religious and belief groups. According to the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the concordats with the Vatican grant the Catholic Church more than 43 million USD in annual government funding for religious education and other operational costs.
The Catholic Church is recognized as a public entity in Croatia, which results in guaranteed funding from the state budget. The exact amount paid annually by the government is not publicly known; but some have estimated that the amount exceeds one billion Kuna (around 175 million USD or roughly 1% of annual state budget), not including the financing of projects of legal entities incorporated by the Church.9
All contributions, charity donations, and gifts received by the Church are explicitly exempt from taxation and do not affect financial obligations of the government.
The State, via its cities, municipalities, and counties, additionally allocates money for churches in their areas, on the argument that the government recognizes the socially valuable work of the Catholic Church in cultural, educational, social, and ethical matters. The amounts given out are not known, and the Church, as a recipient of these funds, is under no obligation to justify its expenditure and therefore it may not be verified.10 From the state project “Investing in (local) communities” the Church received 53 million kunas out of a total of 58 million kunas in 2020.11
The status of other religious groups
In addition to the concordats and other agreements with the Catholic Church, the government has formal agreements with 19 of the registered religious communities that more clearly define activities and cooperation, such as in the areas of marriage and of religious education in public schools. These groups may access state funds for religious activities. A registered religious community may enter into agreements with the government if it had been in existence in Croatia in 1941, or if it has at least 6,000 members. According to the US State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, the government budgeted 22.7 million kuna (3,440,000 USD) during that year to non-Catholic religious groups in amounts proportional to their size (which amounts to less than 8% of the funding Croatia gives the Catholic Church).12
EDUCATION AND CHILDREN’S RIGHTS
Catholic Catechism classes
The preamble of the Croatian Constitution recognizes the “irreplaceable role (of the Catholic Church) in the upbringing of Croatian people and its historic and current role in the cultural and moral education of people, as well as its role in the field of education and culture.”
Catholic Catechism classes are elective, and in theory, children of non-religious parents have the right to opt-out of the classes. In practice, however, this is often not the case. There is no alternative to Catholic education in elementary school, and (pursuant to the Accord on cooperation in the field of education and culture, mentioned above) Catholic education must be treated equally to all other subjects “especially in respect to the schedule of classes” which effectively prevents schools from scheduling these classes at the same time as other options. Therefore, children who do not wish to attend Catholic Catechism classes are usually left unattended in school hallways or are, despite their right to opt-out, asked to stay in classrooms during religious classes since no members of school staff are available to look after them.13
Catholic Catechism classes have also been introduced in many public kindergartens throughout the country, regardless of the religion or belief affiliation of the local population. In most cases this is not a part of any official program; however, in some places, Catholic Catechism has officially become a part of the curriculum. For instance, in the city of Dubrovnik, Catholic Catechism, and no adequate alternative programs are offered for children of non-Catholics.14
The lack of adequate care for pupils who do not attend elective religion classes was further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to students no longer being allowed to remain in school hallways or common areas (e.g. libraries), a large number of pupils were required to stay in the classroom during religious education classes and to listen to the subject they did not choose as an elective.15
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that children who do not attend Catholic Catechism classes are not discriminated against and that the Ministry of Education is not under any obligation to provide them with any alternative subject, such as a more comprehensive religious education, including secular worldviews, or any broader philosophical approach to morals and belief.16
However, the number of children opting out of Catholic Catechism in public schools is increasing, particularly in urban areas. It has been suggested that people are increasingly willing to speak out against religious proselytizing, as well as to demand termination of accords with the Holy See under which such education is mandated.17
Some civil society groups organize humanist workshops for elementary school children. These workshops were created as an alternative to Catholic Catechism in public schools but also provide education on a number of scientific subjects. The number of children attending these workshops is slowly but steadily increasing and workshops based on the same model are now available in several Croatian cities besides Zagreb.18
In 2019, the NGO, Center for Civil Courage, was approached by some parents concerned about the violation of their children’s right to freedom of belief in primary schools. Their children had been forced to participate in blessings and prayers on so-called “Bread Days.”19
Prejudice against minorities in the classroom
Catholic Catechism textbooks for elementary school use material from Pope John Paul II which imply that atheists were responsible for “Auschwitz”. These textbooks also contain instructions on how to talk with atheists and make them realize their mistakes.20
According to UNICEF-sponsored research among students (“Opinions and attitudes of children and youth in Croatia”), young people themselves believe that their peers are most likely to discriminate against young people with disabilities and next most likely against members of religious and national minorities. In fact, children estimated that in 7% of cases they act “very badly” toward peers who do not attend Catholic Catechism, and a further 10% of cases they act “badly”.21
FAMILY; COMMUNITY AND SOCIETY
Croatia’s independence marked the beginning of Catholic Reconquista with the Church and its numerous associations, with initiatives sponsored by the Church aimed at reversing the secular character of the state. At the level of national legislation and political practice, religious institutions systematically undermine the rights of women. For example, by representing discriminatory ideas in public discourse,22 by strengthening gender stereotypes and patriarchal “values” within religious education,23 and by infiltrating into the health education system and public health care.24 Women’s rights are exposed to intense economic and ideological pressure25 after years of attacks, including via threats to the right to have gender and sex education taught in schools, medically assisted insemination regulations, and LGBTI+ rights and marriage equality.26
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Whilst on paper, abortion has been legal in Croatia since 1978, in practice a woman seeking an abortion faces numerous obstacles.
In recent years, religious groups with an anti-abortion agenda have become increasingly prominent, staging the annual “March for Life” rallies which have drawn thousands onto the streets as well as holding candlelit prayer vigils outside hospitals.27 These groups also pursue aggressive online disinformation campaigns, which spread unscientific claims and lies and seek to influence hospitals to stop providing abortion services. They have also opened fake abortion clinics providing disinformation and generating confusion to women seeking abortion services, with no apparent intervention by the state.28
In 2003 doctors were given the right to refuse to provide abortion services on grounds of “conscious objection,” and since that time access to abortion has become less easy with religious pressure pushing doctors increasingly to refuse abortions on moral grounds. Currently, nearly 60% of doctors in public hospitals are not performing abortions on the grounds of their religion, and some entire hospitals refuse.29 While hospitals are under a legal duty to make a referral in such cases, the practice is very unregulated. Many women are forced to have terminations in private clinics or to travel abroad, at an extraordinary cost and possible danger to themselves.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION; ADVOCACY OF HUMANIST VALUES
The constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and the press, and these rights are generally respected. However, Croatia has not fully decriminalized defamation,30 and there have been pervasive efforts on the part of both State and non-state actors to discourage and even prevent journalists from exercising their freedom of expression.31 Journalists investigating corruption and organized crimes report that they are subject to political pressure, intimidation, and assaults.32
Croatian State Radio and Television, the state-run broadcaster, has a formal agreement with the Catholic Church to provide regular, extensive coverage of Catholic events (as many as 10 hours per month). Other religions and denominations receive approximately 10 minutes of broadcast time per month or less. All religious communities that have entered into agreements with the government are guaranteed a certain allocation of time in public media. No such right is guaranteed to secular belief groups. Similarly, no such right is guaranteed to members of religious communities that do not have an agreement with the government.