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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How About Teaching Tolerance?

The Education Ministry's plan to allow the teaching of a course called Orthodox Culture in state schools raises many questions.

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As the ministry's description of the course makes clear, this is not a secular course in religion. It is a course intended to immerse children, beginning in the first grade, in the Orthodox worldview. The course is to be taught by regular teachers -- has anyone thought about how they are to be trained? -- and priests will be allowed in the classroom "as consultants."

The church also sees the course as giving moral guidance to Russia's children. In an address to a conference on education last month, Patriarch Alexy II said schools should give children not only knowledge but "an upbringing."

How will parents feel about the Russian Orthodox Church taking on this role in their children's lives? Many will likely welcome it, but what about those who do not?

The ministry stresses that the course is optional, but this does not mean that a child will have the option of taking Orthodox Culture or, say, a course in art history or Spanish language offered in the same time slot.

It means each school will have the option of including the religious course in its curriculum. What is not clear is how the decision is to be made at each school.

There is also no clear provision for children who choose not to attend. What about the 7-year-old whose parents are Jewish or atheist or Catholic or Muslim or just feel that religious beliefs should be taught at home or in the family's chosen church? Where is this child supposed to go when his classmates gather for Orthodox Culture? The church opposed suggestions that the course be offered after school, arguing that children would not take it seriously enough. But if the course is optional, that is where it belongs, or better yet in neighborhood parishes on Sunday morning. Children who do not want to take the course should not be ostracized.

The Education Ministry's new course seems to assume that to be Russian means to be Orthodox Christian. Yet as President Vladimir Putin reminded us just last week, during his memorable offer to arrange a circumcision for a French journalist who questioned the military's actions in Chechnya, Russia is a multi-confessional country.

But it is not a country that embraces its many confessions. Anti-Muslim feelings are growing as the war in Chechnya seethes and skinhead attacks on non-Russians are on the rise. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been defaced.

Instead of a course in Orthodox Culture, isn't a course in ethnic and religious tolerance what Russia's children really need?