Is The Final Bell Ringing for Russian Orthodox Culture Classes?

Jeremy Reynalds | ASSIST News Service | Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is The Final Bell Ringing for Russian Orthodox Culture Classes?

September 27, 2007

RUSSIA -- The Russian Orthodox Church's attempt to make inroads into the state education system appeared to flounder this month when President Vladimir Putin publicly rebuffed the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course.

Putin made his remarks in response to fears that the subject could be thrown out under current reforms to the educational system.

Forum 18 News service reported he said, “Our Constitution says that the Church is separate from the state. You know how I feel, including towards the Russian Orthodox Church. But if anyone thinks that we should proceed differently, that would require a change to the Constitution. I do not believe that is what we should be doing now.”

The president was speaking during a Sept. 13 visit to Belgorod, the region that has gone furthest in embracing the Foundations of Orthodox Culture. For the past academic year the course has been mandatory for all its students.

Putin's comments come soon after Russia's parliament began consideration of educational reforms Church supporters say are designed to sideline the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course. Passing their first reading on Sept.11, Forum 18 reported the amendments to various laws would allocate responsibility for setting educational standards to the federal government beginning Jan. 1 2008.

In particular, Forum 18 reported, they would abolish post-Soviet provisions granting regional authorities and individual schools the right to determine up to 25 per cent of the core curriculum. It is at the regional level that the Russian Orthodox Church's drive to introduce the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course has been most successful.

Asked by Forum 18 about the impact of the proposed reforms on the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course, an Education Ministry spokesperson would not discuss the issue, but gave the news service a copy of the Ministry's position.

While under the reforms the scope of the school curriculum would be decided on the federal level, Forum 18 reported the undated statement said. As such, each individual school would determine its content “taking into account regional or national particularities, school type, educational requirements and (students’) requests.”

In this way, stated the Education Ministry, “the choice of spiritual and moral upbringing ... will be made as close as possible to the recipients of educational services.”

The actual content of such tuition remains unclear, however, Forum 18 reported. According to the Ministry's statement, the Russian Orthodox Church's Nov. 2006 proposal for two hours per week of Orthodox Culture to be included in the basic curriculum for all grades was referred to the Russian Academy of Education for consideration as part of the “spiritual-moral component” of the new state standard. Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant centralized religious organizations were also asked for their proposals. Then, in May 2007, Academy representatives reported the start of ongoing work on “a new educational field – Spiritual-Moral Culture.”

Forum 18 reported that Aleksandr Krutov, a pro-Orthodox deputy elected to represent the nationalist Rodina faction, insists that the underlying aim of the educational reforms is to scrap the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course. The Education Ministry's assurances to the contrary are unsupported and so unconvincing, he told parliament, especially “taking into account the negative position on this issue repeatedly uttered by Ministry bosses.”

According to Forum 18, an assistant director at the Education Ministry's Department of State Policy and Normative-Legal Regulation in Education claimed that the proposed amendments would make study of the Foundations of Orthodox Culture possible only within the framework of a more general subject, the Foundations of World Religions.

“Children will also study the foundations of Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Protestantism,” Forum 18 reported Natalya Tretyak told the daily newspaper Kommersant in Nov. 2006.

The Education Ministry at first appeared to be behind the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course, Forum 18 reported.

In 2002 it issued a recommended syllabus that included a detailed examination of Orthodox ethics and worship practice. “The Education Ministry believes it is one of its tasks to make it possible for all those who wish to study the foundations of Orthodox culture, which for many years was inaccessible to many generations of Russian citizens,” Forum 18 reported then Education Minister Vladimir Filippov told a news agency in Feb. 2004. On radio the same month, he suggested that “every school should decide whether to introduce it or not, taking into account the position of parents.”

The 1997 Religion Law permits religious organizations to teach religion to state school students outside the framework of the educational program with their and their parents or guardians consent. Forum 18 said the Russian Orthodox Church argues that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture is not religious instruction and as such may form part of the educational program. However, as the 1992 Education Law prohibits activity by religious organizations in state educational institutions, regular teachers - rather than clergy - are the instructors.

With growing reports that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture amounts in effect to mandatory religious instruction, the positions of the Education Ministry and Russian Orthodox Church diverged. When he tried to talk about progress on a History of World Religions textbook, Forum 18 reported that current Education Minister Andrei Fursenko was shouted down at the Russian Orthodox Church's Jan. 2006 Moscow Christmas Lectures. Shouts of “Who needs that?” and “Do you live in Russia, or where?” subsided only after Patriarch Aleksi II appealed for calm.

By late 2006 the Education Ministry acknowledged that it could not influence regional educational authorities over the teaching of the Foundations of Orthodox Culture and requested the Public Chamber's view. A November meeting of three committees produced a statement stressing the plurality of ethnicities, religions and world views in Russia, all of which “have equal rights to realisation of their educational requirements in state schools.”

Free choice should be the guiding principle in the study of one or other religious culture in state schools, it recommended, and course content “should respect the lawful interests and rights of citizens irrespective of their attitude towards religion.” By early 2007, Forum 18 reported the Education Ministry's Social Committee was recommending a single World Religions course taught using a textbook compiled by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Sensing the state's shift, Forum 18 reported that Orthodox Church leaders swiftly defended the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course. At the Jan. 2005 Christmas Lectures, the patriarch dismissed the Foundations of World Religions proposal as offering “knowledge that is purely informational, which cannot sow the seeds of goodness in a child's soul.” The head of the Department of External Church Relations claimed, Forum 18 reported, that it was “a dubious religious studies course taught by people distant from what they teach.”

At the same time, Forum 18 reported that Church leaders continued to insist that their own course provided knowledge about Orthodoxy rather than religious instruction, and that the cultural foundations of the three other faiths commonly regarded as traditional in Russia – Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – could be taught in areas where their followers predominate.

“We do not at all wish to create our own ideological monopoly in education,” Forum 18 reported the patriarch told Orthodox newspaper Pravoslavnaya Moskva in June 2004. “Still less do we wish to transfer the responsibility of the moral and spiritual upbringing of children and teenagers to state schools, as is sometimes alleged.”

Not all Orthodox representatives agree, Forum 18 said. “Despite the patriarch’s repeated statements that the subject should be (culture-based), it is obvious that Divine Law [pre-1917 Orthodox catechism] is being dragged into schools, and in its most unfortunate form,” Father Petr Meshcherinov of the Patriarchal Center for the Spiritual Development of Children and Youth at Moscow's Danilov Monastery remarked at a Nov. 2006 round table on church youth work.

In addition to the manner in which the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course is taught in some regions, Forum 18 reported that such concerns are sparked by views held by some clergy.

For example. Addressing the Jan. 2003 Christmas Lectures, Father Yevgeni Sheshin from Samara and Syzran diocese insisted that the term “the Russian people” was “social heresy.”

He added, “It isn't true what we are told, that the Russian people is multicultural. This is a mononational state.” Arguing that all state schools should be “culturally Russian,” Forum 18 reported that Father Yevgeni described the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course as “an enlightenment tool” that “summons children and their parents to church.”

Forum 18 reported that solid opposition from both academic and Muslim circles ultimately appears to have been instrumental in preventing broader state adoption of the Foundations of Orthodox Culture.

“Even if one accepts that the course really is ‘the Foundations of Orthodox Culture’ and not ‘the Foundations of Orthodox Belief,’” Forum 18 reported that representatives of the Russian Academy of Sciences wrote in a July 2007 open letter to President Putin, “such a course should not be introduced into a multiethnic, multiconfessional country.”

For more background see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=947