Religion in schools, finally

Viktor Malukhin
25 September 2009

Russia's Orthodox Church has finally won its battle to make religious education compulsory in schools, says Russian Orthodox Church official Viktor Malukhin. But the secularists have won concessions too

Patriarch Kirill's public triumph in Ukraine in July was preceded with another achievement no less important for the Russian Orthodox Church. This took place in the much more intimate atmosphere of the presidential residence in Barvikha, in the Moscow Oblast. There Dmitry Medvedev met with the leaders of Russia's traditional religions, and responded to two appeals from them.

He agreed that the history and culture of the country's main religions should be included in the core school curriculum. He also agreed that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation should have military priests.

Patriarch Kirill was the first to sign both documents. The Muslim and Jewish religious communities supported the Orthodox position, despite previous objections from some muftis and rabbis.

What will this decision mean in practice for schools? Twice a week from the spring of next year, pupils in the fourth and fifth classes will study one of three new subjects. They and their parents will be able to choose between the religious culture of one religion (Orthodox, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism), the history and cultural background of the world's great religions, or the foundations of secular ethics. It will be compulsory for pupils to choose one of these three modules.

To start with, it will be introduced in 18 regions in six of the seven federal regions of Russia. The three-year experiment will be introduced in 12,000 Russian schools, 20,000 classes, 256,000 children and 44,000 teachers, according to the Ministry for Education and Science. From 2012, the new modules will be introduced to all Russian schools.

These three modules, "Foundations of religious culture", "Foundations of history and culture of world religions" and "Foundations of secular ethics",- will be taught by teachers who have taken a special training course, though most of them will probably have had  a secular education. The rector of Moscow's State University V.A. Sadovnichy has already expressed a desire to put the resources of the country's leading university behind the re-training of these specialists. But it is clear that at first the main problem will be a serious lack of qualified teaching staff.

The contents of the textbooks for these modules is also likely to prompt public debate. Consequently, the Church has already declared its readiness to work with the Ministry of Education and Science, the Russian Academy of Education, and a number of other institutes in order to inspect the new textbooks and study materials. This has already been announced by the head of the Synodal Department for Religious Education, Bishop Zaraisky Merkury.

The patriarchate has entrusted the writing of the new textbook on the foundations of Orthodox culture to the well-known Deacon Andrei Kuraev, professor of Moscow State University and the Moscow Spiritual Academy. "We must hope that these various textbooks will be written in such a way that whatever religion the children belong to, if they are going to fight during the school break, they'll use the books, rather than the words contained in them as weapons!" said the protodeacon.

"There should be no place for religious propaganda in these lessons, no appeals  to perform particular religious rites or to accept particular dogmas. The textbooks should not contain criticism of other religions, and there should not be a single line which could be used as an argument in the debate of the superiority of one religion over another. The subject should be treated secularly. It should be financed by a secular organisation, and ‘indoctrination' into any faith should be prohibited," stressed the author of the future Orthodox textbook.  

A long campaign

It took two decades to win state support for the teaching of religious culture. However, thanks to the persistence of children and their parents, and to the good will of local authorities and school heads, in many parts of Russia, classes in Orthodox or Muslim culture have in fact already become part of the curriculum - but only as optional subjects, or as part of the regional component of the curriculum.

For example, in the bishopric of Smolensk, which was headed by Bishop Kirill before he was elected Patriarch, they have already set up a three-tier system of spiritual and moral education for children and young people, embracing Orthodox kindergartens, lyceums and the appropriate faculties and departments in high schools.

In various other bishoprics it was agreed that the Church would work with local education authorities. Teachers were given training on the foundations of Orthodox culture. In one way or another, over half a million pupils are already studying the subject across the country. However, it was the abolition of the regional educational component two years ago that spurred the religious activists into action.

An open letter addressed by Patriarch Kirill to the minister for education and science A.A. Fursenko just over a month before the meeting at Barvikha testified to their disquiet. The Patriarch expressed his concern that despite the agreements previously arrived at, "the educational section on religious and moral culture was missing from the main (compulsory) section of the curriculum of the new federal state education standard for the education of the young proposed for publication on the official site of the Ministry for Education and Science of the Russian Federation. It had been proposed that this would come up with a number of subjects concerning a common system of moral values, to be chosen by pupils or their parents."

The Patriarch asked the ministry to reintroduce the subject of "spiritual and moral culture" to schools. He also asked them to include official representatives of the Church "in a working party tasked with developing federal state educational standards. Also to include them in all bodies connected with the confirmation of these standards, as also with the development of the curriculum on spiritual and moral culture".

The tone of barely restrained irritation in this document is understandable. For the Ministry of Education and Science had blatantly broken all previous agreements, including those reached at high-level meetings in the presence of the head of the presidential administration S.E. Naryshkin and his first deputy V.Yu. Surkov.

Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church (chiefly through the metropolitan, and subsequently through Patriarch Kirill), has been trying for years to persuade its opponents that teaching the foundations of religious culture is only intended to be a voluntary subject. There will be alternatives, which will take into account the regional predominance of different religions. 

The Patriarch was at pains to stress that his overriding concern was that the historical and cultural aspect of the new subject should be well established. For without a good grasp of the foundations of the religion that defines the state, it is impossible to understand the country's historical roots, or to appreciate the riches of its national culture.

There was much discussion of the fact that although Russia's constitution stipulates the separation of Church and state, in Russian history the Church is none the less closely linked with the lives of the people, as well as being a significant and influential aspect of civil society.

Finally, the Church issued a polite but firm reminder that freedom of conscience, seen solely as an unlimited opportunity to inculcate atheist thought, is a hangover from the worst days of the state's war against religion

Responding to critics who accuse the Church of trying to clericalise secular society, the Patriarch said: "We are worried about the moral climate in schools which forms the personality of the person, and his or her understanding of good and evil. This is what concerns us, not lobbying for a particular subject of the curriculum, as people often try to make out".

However, the lack of balance in the national education system does raise issues. For example, in Moscow today there are plenty of ethnic schools which receive municipal funding, and sometimes also from the state. There are several dozen Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian, Jewish, Korean, Lithuanian, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Tatar and many other schools, upper secondary schools and education centres. But strange though it may seem, there is not one which specialises in Russian culture (unless you count private schools like the Radonezh gymnasium). In fact, they have not been allowed to teach a course on Orthodox culture in mainstream Moscow schools. It would seem obvious that  such anomalies in our approach to educating young people could lead to serious inter-ethnic problems for those living in a multi-ethnic capital such as ours.

The Kremlin heard the voice of the Patriarch. So too did critics of the Moscow Patriarchate, who mocked the "Barvikha symphony" of the Church and State, the "Orthodoxisation of the country" and the "missionary revenge of the church". For they realise the threat which Patriarch Kirill's new policy, which is gaining increasing popular support, poses to their ideas.

This policy lies in turning nominal Christians, people who are Orthodox only in name, into active members of the Church. The Patriarch has set himself the task of bringing the growing generation of Russians into the church and taking care of them, a generation whose spiritual, moral and physical health is now being sorely tested by the false ideals that are forced on it - vulgar consumerism, social egoism, and attainment of personal success at any price. For as the old Russian saying goes, "he who does not know the law does not know sin either".

I hear that at a parish Sunday school where the well-known Moscow priest Maxim Kozlov teaches pupils sing this merry ditty after lessons: "Father Maxim is going to teach us ‘goats' (ed play on name Kozlov) everything!"

I like the pun, the self-deprecating humour. It makes me feel good about the future.

Viktor Malukhin works for the public relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate
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