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10 Aug, 2007 03:47

Religious teaching in Russian schools - a thorny issue

Science and the Church in Russia are finding the country’s school curriculum a stumbling block in relations. The idea to include the basics of Orthodox Christianity on the list of optional school disciplines has resulted in heated debate.

A stronghold of science – the Russian Academy of Sciences – stands next to an Orthodox church. But some people now see them as enemies.

The proposal to add ‘The Basics of the Orthodox Culture’ as a religious course to the list of optional disciplines in Russian schools has raised a wave of criticism in the country.

“The Scientific community must be non-political, and the state must be secular,” states one of the protestors.

We must respect the religious feelings of the faithful. There are elements of faith in everybody's life. And it's good. But attempts by priests to intervene in state structures is always a tragedy. We don't need it.

  Professor Andrey Vorobyov
Former Minister of Health

Ten prominent Russian scientists, including the Noble Prize winners Zhores Alfyorov and Vitaly Ginzburg, wrote to the Russian President, expressing concern over, as they call it, 'the clericalisation of Russian society'.

The point gets unexpected supporters. Where else you can see communists, gays, and people calling themselves 'Free Radicals' standing shoulder to shoulder? The answer is – at an anti-church rally in Moscow.

Many of those who took part in the rally haven’t ever been to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Some haven’t even studied in a university. But it doesn’t stop them from taking to the streets to support the scientists.

In another part of Moscow there’s a similar group of young people rallying in support of the Russian Orthodox Church. They say the ongoing dispute is a provocation.

“The church and science are allies. And this is a provocation by the anti-church minority aimed at agitating the church and the state on the eve of elections in 2007 and 2008,” claims Kirill Frolov from Union of Orthodox Citizens.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, Head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, says they want to educate people, but not to enter politics.

“In many of our regions, especially in the southern regions of Russia, thousands of Orthodox pupils learn foundations of Orthodox culture, and many Muslim pupils learn foundations of Islam and Islamic culture. This is very natural,” the Church official explains.

Father Vsevolod says the controversy over Orthodox education in school is a positive trend, as it proves the openness of Russian society.

Neither camp appears to have gained mass support. But any campaign has to start somewhere.