RUSSIA - With the apparent blessing of the Kremlin, the Education Ministry has defied resistance even from within its own ranks and taken a major step toward introducing an Orthodox Christian component into the public school system.
Education Minister Vladimir Filippov last week released a 30-page description of an optional course called "Orthodox Culture," which can be taught in public schools as a part of the basic curriculum if regional education officials or a school's principal decides to do so.
Filippov said he was submitting the course, developed by Orthodox educators, only for "consideration." But one of the authors said it gives a green light to those who have balked at introducing such a course and attempts to provide a framework for the wide variety of courses already taught in about 60 of Russia's 89 constituent regions.
"It means the ministry does not mind if such courses are introduced," said Hierodeacon Kiprian Yashchenko, dean of the pedagogical department at St. Tikhon Orthodox Theological Institute and one of the authors of the course. "You know our bureaucrats -- they use their offices according to their worldview. Most of them are atheists and they say it is impossible because the school is separate from the church. Yes, we are separate from the state, but we can cooperate, can't we?"
Yashchenko, who has a doctorate in pedagogical science, said he led the group of educators who compiled the program from what is already being tested in the Noginsk district of the Moscow region, Smolensk, Kursk, Belgorod and other regions of Russia. Although the intention is to immerse children in the Orthodox worldview, the course is taught by regular teachers and does not include any church ritual. "Priests may be consultants," he said.
The 30-page document is a vast catalogue of themes, including Biblical subjects, Orthodox tradition, asceticism, liturgy, literature and art. By the end of the course, a student could be asked to write a paper on one of 64 subjects, such as "Faith and Science," "Moscow as the Third Rome" or "Orthodox Understanding of Freedom."
The ministry says the course, which it recommends teaching once a week in primary school and twice a week in secondary school, is to be part of the main curriculum but with attendance to be voluntary.
"Russia is a multinational country, and even within one subject of the federation there are places where there are practically no Orthodox," Interfax quoted Filippov as saying in Novosibirsk. On the other hand, he said, Orthodox culture has existed in Russia for more than a thousand years and there is an "objective need" to learn it in school.
The program does not spell out how the decision to teach the course is to be made, whether a certain percentage of parents, for instance, has to request the course. And if the course is taught, there is as yet no provision for children who choose not to attend.
Religious education in public schools is a highly sensitive and controversial subject anywhere in the world and especially in Russia, where interpretations of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state vary greatly, and a system of church-state relations is being painfully developed after decades of Soviet atheism.
The program appears to have bypassed the Education Ministry apparatus, which Orthodox Church officials have described as among the most reluctant to cooperate with the church.
"We have not produced, ordered, reviewed or issued any such program! We have a [secular] religion studies program, but no 'Orthodox Culture!'" Tamara Tyulyaeva, an official with the Educational Ministry's department of general education, said angrily in a telephone interview Thursday. "There were such attempts, but we have a simple answer: We are a secular school system and will never introduce any confessional program -- neither Moslem, nor Jewish, nor our dear Orthodox. Otherwise we'll get such a mess!"
Opponents of religious education in public schools -- who at various stages included State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, Deputy Speaker Irina Khakamada and the Yabloko party -- say it will divide people and sow xenophobia.
"This document smacks of the Middle Ages and obscurantism," government spokesman Alexei Volin was quoted in Friday's Gazeta as saying. "If the Education Ministry considers it necessary to introduce studies in religion, the course should include the basics of all religious world views and the history of atheism in addition."
The Orthodox Church has argued that secular religion classes do not offer students a choice of worldview, because religion is taught from a nonreligious perspective. An Orthodox class, however, would add a moral dimension otherwise missing in the post-Soviet school system and would help reverse the proliferation of crime, drug-addiction and alcoholism, the church said.
"The moral disorientation of many young people, their loss of a meaning in life, becomes the soil for various vices and threatens Russia's future," Patriarch Alexy II wrote in an address to a state-church conference on education in October. "That is why all of us -- religious leaders, [state] authorities and society -- have to realize that school should give not only a sum of knowledge, but also an upbringing."
The conference, which took place Oct. 10-11, appears to have played a pivotal role in the Education Ministry's paper, which is dated Oct. 22. In addition to Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders, the conference was attended by presidential envoys Georgy Poltavchenko and Sergei Kiriyenko, State Duma members and Educational Ministry officials.
Izvestia quoted Poltavchenko -- the presidential envoy to the Central Federal District who is a practicing Orthodox Christian -- as saying at the conference that it is time for an "Orthodox Culture" course across Russia. Kiriyenko, from the Volga Federal District, also named education as one of the fields where the state should cooperate with "traditional" religions. With most post-Soviet school programs still permeated with atheism, a religious course would offer students an alternative, he said.
A former employee of the Moscow Patriarchate's department of education and catechism, who did not want to be named, said the decision was likely made on the sidelines of that conference. He also said the government's program to help Muslim education in Russia, aimed at preventing Russian Muslims from traveling to the Arab world's often radical schools, played a role in the Moscow Patriarchate's lobbying efforts.
That perhaps explains why official Muslim leaders did not protest the Education Ministry's decision. "We are not against our Orthodox brothers finding out as much as possible about their culture," said Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia. He stressed, however, that the voluntary aspect is crucial and complained that Russia's Muslims and other religious groups are unable to reach all schools because they "suffered even more than the Orthodox Church during the Soviet period," Interfax reported.
Nafigulla Ashirov, the Mufti of Siberia who is seen as a more radical Muslim leader, strongly opposed the Orthodoxy course. "Russia is living through one of the most complicated moments in its history, and raising this issue when the Chechnya wound is bleeding in the south of Russia, when skinheads are walking the streets of Moscow, is a direct violation of the Constitution," Ashirov said in a telephone interview Friday.
Human rights activists are among the fiercest opponents of the program. The For Human Rights group led by Lev Ponomaryov complained to the Prosecutor General's Office earlier this year about a textbook titled "The Basics of Orthodox Culture" by Alla Borodina, but the complaint was thrown out.
"The textbook's authors help the growth of xenophobia and nationalism in our society," Interfax quoted Ponomaryov as saying. "This textbook, which is already used in state schools, imposes the views of one confession on schoolchildren and thus violates the principle of a secular state."
Yashchenko said the second edition of Borodina's textbook will be corrected to take into account human rights activists' complaints.
"We in the Church are first and foremost against violating the will of children and their parents," he said by telephone Friday. "If it turns into the Divine Law [the doctrinal course taught in tsarist Russia], if we don't take into account that most children are not church-goers, if it does not create a field for thinking, then we will definitely kill the cause. Then it will turn out like before the Revolution, when everybody went to the Divine Law, knew the prayers and holidays, but lived differently."