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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bumpy Ride in Drive to Reshape Society

With a friend in the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church hoped to reshape society.

But many of its efforts got mixed results, especially after they sparked resistance from religious minorities and secular groups.

The church's most ambitious idea -- as well as the most controversial one -- was to bring Orthodoxy into the public school system. In 2002, Russia took a step in that direction when President Vladimir Putin's then-education minister, Vladimir Filippov, endorsed a new school subject called "Foundations of Orthodox Culture." Supporters called it a neutral history of Orthodox Christianity, but critics charged that it was a backdoor attempt at religious indoctrination.

The proposal was watered down after criticism from non-Orthodox religious leaders. Filippov announced that offering the class would be the decision of regional governments or individual schools. In 2004, Putin replaced him with Andrei Fursenko, a physicist with a much cooler attitude to the church.

Variations on "Foundations of Orthodox Culture" are now offered in some regions, regularly sparking complaints from religious minorities.

One such incident took place last September in Voronezh, where a 7-year-old boy was beaten and taunted by his classmates after refusing to participate in an Orthodox service to mark the first day of school. The boy, David Perov, came from a family that belongs to the Community of Christ, a church that traces its roots to Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

"In my opinion, instead of teaching Orthodox culture, this class incites religious animosity," said Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer and head of the Slavic Legal Center, an organization that fights infringements of religious freedom.

Last summer, 10 scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences, including Nobel Prize-winner Vitaly Ginzburg, sharply criticized the class in an open letter to Putin.

Putin's remarks on the subject have sought middle ground. Addressing church leaders last November, he said the class should be offered on an optional basis and should include religions other than Orthodoxy.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the church's main spokesman, said the church agreed with the president's position, adding that religious education in the public schools was still a church priority.

"We want to make schools comfortable for adherents of different faiths, and not just for secular humanists, the supporters of the so-called scientific worldview who now have a monopoly on government schools," he said.

One reason that Putin has been cautious on the subject is because he cannot afford to alienate Russia's large population of Muslims, said Alexei Malashenko, an Islam expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Orthodoxy wants to have the status of a special, quasi governmental religion, and this irritates Muslims very much," Malashenko said. "So there is a collision in which the state becomes the mediator between the two sides."

Pchelintsev said Christian-Muslim relations were also imperiled by the practice of government agencies building chapels and churches. He cited the example of a chapel built in 2004 on the grounds of Moscow City Court, in the northeast of the city. One of Pchelintsev's Muslim clients refused to enter the courthouse after seeing the chapel. "He said that this sort of justice didn't suit him," he said.

A practicing Baptist, Pchelintsev said cases of religious discrimination had continued throughout the Putin years, just like in the Yeltsin era. Many involved real estate disputes, in which local and regional governments attempted to take away buildings used by non-Orthodox groups. "This only affects religious minorities," he said. "The Orthodox Church receives plenty of buildings and land."