A decision by the Muslim-led county council to allow religious instruction in kindergartens across Bosnia's capital of Sarajevo has been met with a chorus of outrage from critics who fear it may deepen the country's ethnic divide and spill over into a religious conflict.
For the classes, the Muslim children are taken to a seperate classroom where the "bula"—an intermediary between an imam and the family—teaches a basic Islamic studies class and explains how the Prophet Muhammad travelled from Mecca to Medina.
The start of the classes in October ratcheted up tensions across the country, still split among rival ethnic groups—Muslims, Serbs and Croats—who shed each other's blood in the 1992-95 conflict.
"Every wrong move could... come back and hit us like a boomerang," said psychologist Jasna Bajraktarevic, who feels such teaching should be confined to the family home.
"The introduction of religion classes in kindergartens is a kind of a Trojan Horse hiding a desire to provoke conflict among different confessions," she said.
The county education ministry defends the initiative, saying it is in line with a religious freedom act in force since 2004.
“We would have been violating that law if we did not organize religious teaching," said Srecko Zmukic, an official with the ministry.
Each faith has been invited to prepare a curriculum, but so far only Islamic classes have been organized in Sarajevo, where the weekly 30-minute lessons are funded by the city's Muslim government.
The Catholic Church is expected to prepare its program soon but its Orthodox counterpart as yet has shown no interest, Zmukic said.
"All of this will just deepen divisions among people here, and that is wrong," said Helena Mandic, a non-Muslim mother who leads a group of parents challenging the decision.
Muslims account for around 40 percent of Bosnia's 3.8 million inhabitants. Some 31 percent are Christian Orthodox Serbs and about 10 percent Roman Catholic Croats.
A terrible mistake
Opponents say the Islamic kindergarten lessons place Sarajevo's children on the frontline of a populist political battleground to capitalize on post-conflict nationalist sentiment.
They argue that such young children are unable to properly understand the subject, and warn of the consequences of separating them for the classes.
"It could prove to be a terrible mistake in a post-war society deeply divided along ethnic lines," psychologist Bajraktarevic told AFP.
"I'm afraid that in 20 years from now we could have a country that is ethnically divided far deeper than today, and we would be very close to another conflict."
Supporters say many parents' time is already stretched and happily hand over the responsibility of religious instruction to educational institutions.
The kindergarten teacher who requested anonymity found the separate lessons disruptive, as only 10 percent of her classes attend them.
"It is totally unnecessary. Kids are taught much more about religious holidays through a regular curriculum," she complained.
Freedom to publicly express religious beliefs was suppressed during the communist era when Bosnia was part of the former Yugoslavia, prior to its bloody break-up.