Video records of children who are learning how to shoot replica Kalashnikovs in a mountain camp of an unrecognized Orthodox Church triggered a debate in Serbia about abuse and protecting the youngest.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 18/08/14
Campers spent 10 days in the mountains during the Serbian True Orthodox Church camp, which includes survival training and weapons classes. [YouTube]
A religion-based youth camp in a mountainous region of Serbia has drawn the attention of police and politicians after videos emerged that showed youngsters handling knives and replica Kalashnikovs.
The camp is operated by the so-called Serbian True Orthodox Church, whose members consider themselves the guardians of orthodoxy and have left the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The 10-day camp has children, some younger than 10 years old, living in tents and learning survival skills under the supervision of instructors.
"Police will investigate the whole case and whether there was any abuse of children," Serbian Police Director Milorad Veljovic told SETimes.
But there was no doubt for some politicians. Serbian Parliament Speaker Maja Gojkovic said that the violation of the rights of the youngest were obvious.
"It is unacceptable that children are abused in this way, and I expect an urgent response by the relevant authorities," said Gojkovic, who is also the president of the Parliamentary Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Aleksandar Vulin, the minister of Labour, Employment and Social Affairs, said authorities would interview the parents.
"In the first place, there is the responsibility of parents. Nobody can take their children away from them only because they let them go to the camp. That is why we should now discuss with the parents to see what actually happened. Parents should respond if they don't support that children practice with weapons," Vulin said. The leader of the Serbian True Orthodox Church zealots, who calls himself Bishop Acacius, said weapons training is only a small part of the camp.
"Of those 10 days, and all sorts of activities we had in the camp -- from games and entertainment, sports activities, hiking... it was only one day during the entire camp practicing the weapons replicas. I think that the whole story about the weapons in the camp and child abuse is absolutely exaggerated," he said.
The camp is also being criticised by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
"It was a scandalous way in which they militarised children, as they were misused and misled. This has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, Christ and the gospel, and we invite state authorities to investigate this group," said Bishop Porphyry, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia.
Deputy Ombudsman Serbia Gordana Stevanovic urged authorities to investigate the camp.
"It is a constitutional right of parents and legal guardians to give children religious and moral education in conformity with their convictions, but this right is limited to the obligation of all children's activities are age appropriate," she told SETimes.
Zarko Trebjesanin, a psychology professor at the University of Belgrade, told SETimes that the camp sends a dangerous message.
"It is very positive we had immediate and unanimous public reaction that it is unacceptable that children are brought up in such a militant spirit, especially when it is associated with religion. Then it is opening a door to fundamentalism or extremism, which is devastating for any democratic society," Trebjesanin said.
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