Schools Told to Give Orthodox Lessons

Compulsory courses on Orthodox Christian culture will be part of the curriculum in public schools in several regions of the country this school year, which begins Friday.

In response, the Council of Muftis of Russia announced it would push the government to expand instruction of Muslim culture beyond the Muslim republics in the North Caucasus to other regions with established Muslim communities, Interfax reported Wednesday.

Initiatives to introduce obligatory courses on religious subjects into public schools run counter to the Education Ministry's position. The ministry contends that such courses should be offered as electives only.

In addition, the Constitution mandates the separation of church and state.

The introduction of courses in Orthodox culture are just one example of the growing influence of the church.

The church's presence in the military, for example, has been growing steadily in recent years with the encouragement of the top brass. Orthodox priests already preach informally in many units, including those fighting in the North Caucasus, and the Defense Ministry is currently considering the introduction of official chaplains in the armed forces.

The Belgorod and Bryansk regions are among those introducing compulsory courses in Orthodox culture for the first time. The republics of Mordovia and Chuvashia will introduce the courses as electives, said Alexander Kantsarin, a consultant at Moscow Patriarchate's department of religious education and catechesis.

In the Belgorod region, students have had the option to learn about Orthodoxy since 1998 through after-school clubs or elective courses, said Svetlana Kalashnikova, deputy head of the region's education and science department. The new course will be taught to grades 2 through 11 for one hour per week.

Like all proponents of the course, Kalashinkova maintains that it is secular.

"We're not talking about teaching religion, but about studying Orthodoxy as a traditional national culture," she said, adding that 93.9 percent of the region's residents were ethnic Russians.

Pupils belonging to other religions should study Orthodoxy because it is the culture of the traditionally Orthodox country they live in, Kalashnikova said.

In the Bryansk region, the course will be mandatory for first- through fourth-graders, and will be offered as an elective for older pupils, said Valentina Molikova of the region's general and professional education department. She said the course would cover topics such as art, the environment, home and family, and would counteract the ubiquitous "propaganda" promoting violence and drugs.

The patriarchate does not keep statistics on how many regions have introduced Orthodox culture classes, Kantsarin said.

A number of regions, such as the Moscow, Kursk, Kaluga and Smolensk regions, have been offering the course either as a requirement or an elective for as many as six years. The church assists regional authorities in creating curricula and provides priests to teach the courses.

Marat Murtazin, deputy head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, said that as many as 75 regions offered courses on Orthodox culture in some form, Interfax reported. The council felt compelled to develop a textbook and curriculum on Muslim culture, he said.

A similar course is already taught in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Tatarstan, Interfax reported.

Most Muslims in Russia are concerned about the Orthodox Church's expansion into public schools, said Geidar Jemal, the head of the Islamic Committee, a nongovernmental organization.

"This educational initiative ... is obviously backed by forces that want to drive a wedge between Russians and newcomers," Jemal said, adding that most regions now hosted refugees from conflict zones in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Neither of Russia's two chief rabbis have received complaints from Jews living in regions where the Orthodoxy classes have been introduced. But Berl Lazar and Adolf Shayevich said all world religions should be taught in a culturally varied state such as Russia.