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Class in Russian Orthodoxy Raises Concerns of Balance

Human rights groups express fears that teaching about nation's dominant religion in public school will upset the fragile ethnic peace.

January 12, 2003|Sarah Karush | Associated Press Writer

YAMKINO, Russia — A small statue of Vladimir Lenin presides over the lobby of this village's public school. But upstairs, some second-graders are getting a lesson decidedly at odds with the state atheism imposed by the Soviet Union's founding father.

They're learning about the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church.

School administrators in the Noginsk district, with some 20,000 students about 22 miles southeast of Moscow, have added religion to the curriculum as a moral framework to replace Lenin's now discredited communist dogma.

After a recent endorsement from the Education Ministry, such programs look set to spring up around the country -- despite a federal law prohibiting religion in schools and the Russian constitution's separation of church and state.

Human rights groups worry that bringing the dominant Russian Orthodox Church into public schools will upset the country's fragile ethnic peace.

Officials in Noginsk and the local priests who helped develop the class, "The Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture," say their version of the subject is respectful to other faiths. They say they are merely exposing students to the country's traditional religion, which they consider essential for understanding Russia, its art and its literature.

School officials are quick to point out that anyone can opt out of the class. In Yamkino, one Muslim first-grader gets extra art and music lessons while her schoolmates study Orthodoxy.

The Rev. Igor Gagarin, who trained Noginsk teachers in the new subject, said the class differs from God's Law, the czarist-era theology course that was mandatory for all Russian schoolchildren.

"We're not teaching people to pray," he said. "God's Law assumes everyone studying it is a believer. We don't say this. We say we want to teach you about the faith, and you can decide for yourself whether to be a believer or not."

On a recent day in Yamkino, a group of 7- and 8-year-olds listened as teacher Yelena Zvonova talked about the birth of Jesus, "our savior."

Zvonova described how Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and no one would give them shelter. She then asked the class where Jesus lay after his birth.

Several hands shot up. "On hay!" answered one boy.

"On straw," Zvonova said, nodding. "So, you see kids, Christ began to suffer for people from his birth."

Zvonova told the children that Jesus' birth is celebrated Jan. 7 -- Christmas according to the Orthodox calendar. She did not mention that Catholics and Protestants, of whom there are small communities throughout Russia, celebrate the same event Dec. 25.

The Russian Orthodox Church has tense relations with other churches, and Russian Catholics and Protestants contend that they must struggle with official discrimination. The government expelled five foreign-born Catholic priests in 2002.

Teachers and priests say the Orthodox classes give children a moral compass in a society increasingly plagued by alcoholism, drugs and violence.

"These lessons in goodness give children a chance to resist the flow of lies and aggression," said the Rev. Mikhail Yalov, archpriest of Noginsk's Cathedral of the Epiphany.

Introduced into Noginsk classrooms in 1998, the religion course has been well received by students and parents, officials say.

"It's refreshing for the soul," said Lyuba Kazarina, 15.

For Noginsk residents who want to learn about Orthodoxy outside public school, there is no shortage of opportunity. Besides Sunday school, the cathedral runs a parochial school, and Yalov and other priests lead frequent retreats for young people.

Nevertheless, Yalov argues that cooperation between the town's Orthodox and secular leaders is essential. "The church is the soul of the state," he said.

In November, the Education Ministry put its backing behind Orthodox culture classes, already taught in several regions, by sending all schools a recommended syllabus for the course.

Minority religious leaders have been muted in their response to the initiative.

The Spiritual Board of Muslims in European Russia said it had no objection as long as the course is optional. Berel Lazar, one of Russian Jews' chief rabbis, said that the country was not ready for such a program but that he could accept it if classes in other religions were made available as well.

Legal experts and liberal politicians have been harsher.

"Even if it is an elective, it is still within the framework of the school program and still at the government's expense," said Anatoly Pchelintsev, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Religion and Law.

The Movement for Human Rights asked prosecutors in June to open a case against the Education Ministry for endorsing an Orthodox culture textbook that says Jews forced Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus because "they thought only about power over other peoples and earthly wealth." Prosecutors refused, and the group is challenging that decision in court.

In addition to attacking Jews, the textbook accuses Russia's non-Orthodox "guests" of "not always behaving nobly in the traditionally Orthodox state."

It is unclear whether the book has been put to use in any schools. Noginsk schools use their own materials.

Supporters of Orthodox culture classes so far have been more vocal than opponents. On Dec. 15, several hundred people gathered with icons and crosses in front of the Education Ministry, saying they were defending ethnic Russians' right to know their culture.

Like all religious institutions, the Russian Orthodox Church was crippled under communism. So isn't it odd that the Yamkino school continues to pay homage to Lenin as it embraces the church? Zvonova, the teacher, sees no reason to remove the statue.

"That's also part of our history," she said.

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