ROAR: Religion returns to Russian schools

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The Russian president has approved plans to introduce teaching the fundamentals of religious culture and secular ethics in schools, and a chaplain’s institute in the armed forces.

Dmitry Medvedev announced this week the launch of a pilot project on teaching religious culture in schools and the introduction of army priests. The Russian media is full of mixed opinions about this initiative.

According to the pilot program, representing the country’s traditional faiths, pre-teen students will take classes in religion or secular ethics at approximately 12,000 schools in 18 regions. Children and their parents will be allowed to choose classes to study one of four traditional faiths in the country: Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism.

Students also have the choice of studying an overview of all these faiths, or taking a course in secular ethics. The religious disciplines will be introduced in schools from September 1 this year.

The plan requires publishing new textbooks and training some 44,000 instructors – most likely teachers of history and social sciences – who will teach the new courses. The priests will not teach at schools, the media report.

“The most serious problem for religious education at school is its scale,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta-Nedelya wrote. The pilot program involves some 256,000 students.

The new subject will be called, in the secular manner, “spiritual and moral upbringing”. After the end of the experiment it might be corrected and then introduced in all schools – but not sooner than in 2012.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia was quoted in the media as saying that any religious education will be taught on a voluntary principle. He even quoted a Russian proverb, saying that “Forced worship is not worship”.

“Even the most thorough analysis shows that there is nothing dangerous for the state [in introducing the new subject], but a positive experience may be gained,” Kirill said. The Russian constitution stipulates the separation of church and state.

Speaking at the meeting with leaders of Russia’s leading faiths on July 21, the president stressed the importance of relations between the government and religious organizations in the area of education and upbringing.

These relations affect an individual’s values, the rules of conduct in society, and “the formation of the identity of the Russian Federation’s citizens,” Medvedev said.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long been seeking the permission to teach basic principles of Orthodoxy in schools. Well-known Russian writer Aleksandr Prokhanov supported the new pilot program. He had said earlier that students must know the Orthodox culture of their country.

“We need classes on the Orthodox culture rather than classes on Orthodoxy,” Prokhanov said, adding that there should be stories told in classrooms about how Russian culture has advanced. “It does not matter how the idea would be fulfilled, it is useful,” he said.

However, the idea of introducing classes on Orthodoxy, which was widely discussed two years ago, drew criticism from some representatives of other faiths. The decision taken by Medvedev this week involves four faiths, but Vladimir Vigilyansky, a Moscow Patriarchate spokesman, was quoted by Kommersant daily as saying that “a great deed has been performed.”

“Educating children in the proper understanding of religious culture” may help solve problems of “hatred against foreigners and extremism,” Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar said in his turn.

Head of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg Mark Grubarg considers the principles of teaching fundamentals of religious culture in schools, approved by the president, to be “democratic and positive”.

They are democratic because students can “choose a religion to study,” Grubarg said. “Everyone should first of all study its own culture and traditions,” he said, but added that people should also know the fundamentals of other faiths.

Grubarg stressed the possibility to study secular ethics: “Our society has a lot of people who do not belong to any faith or have atheistic opinions.” At the same time, he sees the main problem in training instructors “who do not belong to any faith.”

Special lectures are to be organized in the St. Petersburg synagogue for instructors who will teach the new subject in schools, Grubarg added.

Several experiments on teaching fundamentals of Orthodoxy culture and Islamic culture are already under way in some Russian regions as part of regional education programs.

Albir-khazrat Krganov, the chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Board of Chuvashia, said that a similar program is being fulfilled in the republic. “Secular instructors” teach the fundamentals of religious culture as an optional subject, he told the Regnum news agency. “We, as experts, help teachers and give them books,” he added.

Head of the Traditional Buddhist Sangha of Russia Damba Ayusheev supported the introduction of the new subject and said that a “significant decision has been made.” He thanked the Russian president and invited him to visit a Buddhist temple.

“You recently visited a mosque, the whole country has seen this, and Jews are also joyful and happy, and how about Buddhists?” Ayusheev asked Medvedev. The president promised to visit a Buddhist temple soon, media reported.

Some observers and politicians, however, expressed concern over the new classes. Aleksandr Asmolov, the head of the department of personality psychology at Moscow State University believes that “a special course on spiritual and moral upbringing should be introduced in schools rather than Orthodoxy.”

It should be taught by secular teachers, Asmolov told Komsomolskaya Pravda. “If this course in our multinational country will be monopolized by one faith, a burst of emotions and aggravation of religious conflicts will be inevitable,” he added.

Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the Russian Communist Party central committee, told Kommersant that “clerics may replace secular instructors with time.”

“We are against interference by church institutions in the affairs of social institutions,” he said. The Communist Party is blamed by many in Russia for the suppression of religious freedoms during the Soviet era.

Sergey Ivanenko, member of the political committee of the Yabloko liberal opposition party, was quoted by the same paper as saying that the introduction of religious education might lead to “additional control over citizens through church institutions.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has appointed Deacon Andrey Kuraev, the prominent publicist, head of the commission to write a textbook on fundamentals of the Orthodox culture. This task will be accomplished in three years, Kuraev said.

There should be three books for the fourth grade and the tenth grade: a textbook, a book for a teacher and a reader, Kuraev told the Interfax news agency. Ideally, an atheist instructor should teach the subject, a person who both loves their profession and children, he added.

Sergey Borisov, RT