Lesson in Nativity Cards and the Constitution

MTYelena Popova giving a lesson to 11- and 12-year-olds on the fundamentals of Orthodox culture in her public school in Dedinovo, in the Moscow region.
DEDINOVO, Moscow Region -- As Yelena Popova's sixth-graders settled in for their third-period class last week, she greeted them with a distinctly Christian message: "Happy Nativity of the Blessed Virgin!"

Last Thursday's Orthodox Church holiday was the topic of Popova's "Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture" lesson. She teaches in the public school at Dedinovo, a small town in the northern Moscow region.

Popova proceeded to tell her 11- and 12-year-olds about the holiday's significance. She asked them what they knew about the Virgin Mary's birth, and included a language lesson on the etymology on the Russian word for piety, blagochestiye.

Finally, after leading a discussion of the concept of hypocrisy, Popova had the children create their own "Happy Nativity" cards with colored pencils and construction paper.

Does a lesson like this qualify as religious education in a country where church and state are officially separate? The answer depends on how you define religious education.

The Constitution stipulates that Russia is a secular state, and that "no religion can be installed as the official or compulsory [religion]." It also guarantees equal rights to people of all faiths.

A 1997 law further establishes the secular nature of public school education.

Asked about her own Orthodox culture class, Popova saw no contradiction. "Ethics education is the most important component of these lessons," she explained. "We cover the history of the scriptures and pan-human values."

"I would never take such a sin upon myself -- to introduce children to faith," Popova said.

The Russian Orthodox Church has adopted a similar position. In the church's view, religious education involves instruction in divine law, a discipline last taught in public schools before the Revolution.

A class on divine law presumes instruction on the practical aspects of the faith, such as prayers, rites and proper behavior in church, said Father Sergiy Zvonaryov, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, however.

Muslim leaders, including the Council of Muftis of Russia, have denounced the Orthodox culture courses, saying they amount to placing one religion above all others.

At the same time, Islamic culture courses are widely taught in the predominantly Muslim republics of the North Caucusus. The Council of Muftis is working on new textbooks on Islamic culture and plans to ask the government to offer the course in other regions of the country with large Muslim communities.

Jewish leaders have said they would support the introduction of a general course on world religions.

But Popova is hardly alone in confusing the secular and the religious when it comes to public education.

Despite the 1997 law on religious freedom that established the principle of secular education, the federal Education and Science Ministry allows regional authorities to introduce classes on Orthodox culture into local school curricula.

Elective classes began appearing across the country in the late 1990s, and the Belgorod region recently introduced a mandatory class on the topic.

Schools in the Moscow region have been experimenting with the classes for six years. Moscow itself decided not to offer the classes, however, in recognition of the city's extremely diverse population.

The old Education Ministry drew up guidelines for Orthodox culture courses in 2002, and these have served as the basis for a number of approved textbooks on the subject. Popova uses one such textbook, titled "Orthodox Culture," in her class in Dedinovo.

The ministry was subsequently folded into the new Education and Science Ministry. Tatyana Petrova of the ministry's Education Policy Department, who now oversees Orthodox culture courses in the regions, said the ministry had no right to interfere in regional education policy, and that it was waiting for guidance on the issue from the Public Chamber and the president's Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations, headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Petrova said the Orthodox culture classes being taught were secular in nature. "They don't perform religious rituals, no one prays and the children don't have to wear special clothing," she said.

Public reaction to the Orthodox culture classes has generally been positive.

Education officials in the Belgorod and Bryansk regions have said they offered the classes in response to public demand and as a way to instill moral values in children growing up surrounded by violence, alcohol and drugs.

Educators in regions where the classes have been introduced, and where the population is predominantly ethnic Russian with at least a nominal Orthodox background, have reported little or no opposition.

In a poll conducted by the VTsIOM agency in 2001, 46 percent of respondents supported teaching the fundamentals of religion in public schools. 39 percent of those polled opposed introducing religion into the school, while 15 percent were undecided.

The idea of teaching religion in school is, of course, a stark departure from the total eradication of religion from public life in the Soviet era.

The "radically secular" Soviet stance on religion continues to define the debate about religious education, said Alexei Beglov, a researcher at the Academy of Sciences' World History Research Institute.

"Some people are trying to preserve this position, while others are attempting radically to overcome it," Beglov said.

The separation of church and state first appeared in Europe in the 18th century, but did not make its way to Russia -- where Peter the Great had just finished integrating the Orthodox Church into the state -- until 1905, Beglov said.

In 1905, equal rights were granted to people of other faiths, and later the church retreated from politics and gave up its oversight and registration functions, he explained. "Perhaps everything would have continued to develop naturally in this direction" if the Bolsheviks had not intervened, Beglov said.

Critics of religious education are frequently ignorant of the Western European experience, said Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Father Mikhail Dudko. "When we look at Western European countries, which no one is chiding for a lack of democracy, in many of them religious education is present in one form or another," Dudko said.

Germany and Austria, where church and state are separate, have optional religious instruction in state schools. Other countries, such as Britain and Finland, which have an official state religion, also give religious instruction, with a choice to study ethics or a particular religion.

In the United States, where separation between church and state is more strict, religious education cannot be funded by the government. Rights watchdogs such as the American Civil Liberties Union have successfully sued against any perceived endorsement of religion by public schools.

At the ring of a bell, Popova dismissed her sixth-grade class with the words, "Go, my dears, and God be with you." Until the government offers clear guidelines on the place of religion in the schools, it will be impossible to say for certain if this traditional farewell is appropriate in a public school classroom.