RUSSIA: Putin sounds final bell for Orthodox culture classes?
Non-Orthodox parents – whether of other faiths or no faith – have long complained that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course in schools is compulsory and catechetical, not culturological. But Forum 18 News Service notes that the Russian Orthodox Church's efforts to promote it could now flounder after President Vladimir Putin's remarks in mid-September in Belgorod – the region where imposition of the subject has gone furthest. Stressing Russia's constitutional separation of religion and state, Putin added, "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." But it remains unclear how religion will be taught in state schools. Reforms now in parliament would abolish the regional mechanism through which the Foundations of Orthodox Culture has been introduced. In a position paper sent to Forum 18, however, the Education Ministry says that the reforms will also allow each individual school to determine curriculum content, "taking into account regional or national particularities, school type, educational requirements and pupils' requests".
Previous Orthodox Church efforts to co-opt the state in restricting rival religious influence – such as through the 1997 Religion Law – would not have been felt by most citizens. Forum 18 points out that - with a potential audience of millions of schoolchildren - Russia's political leadership cannot afford to treat the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course lightly.
Putin made his remarks in response to fears that the subject could be jettisoned under current reforms to the educational system: "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 13 September 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 compulsory for all its pupils (see F18News 25 September 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1023).
Putin's comments also come shortly 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 11 September, the amendments to various laws would allocate responsibility for setting educational standards to the federal government from 1 January 2008. In particular, 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 about the impact of the proposed reforms on the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course on 20 September, an Education Ministry spokesperson would not enter into discussion but gave Forum 18 a copy of the Ministry's position.
While under the reforms the scope of the school curriculum would be decided on the federal level, the undated statement confirms, each individual school would determine its content "taking into account regional or national particularities, school type, educational requirements and pupils' requests." In this way, maintains the Ministry, "the choice of spiritual and moral upbringing (..) will be made as close as possible to the recipients of educational services."
The precise content of such tuition remains unclear, however. According to the Ministry's statement, the Russian Orthodox Church's November 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 centralised religious organisations 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".
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 on 11 September, especially "taking into account the negative position on this issue repeatedly uttered by Ministry bosses."
Previously an assistant director at the Education Ministry's Department of State Policy and Normative-Legal Regulation in Education did maintain 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," Natalya Tretyak told the daily newspaper Kommersant in November 2006.
The Education Ministry at first appeared to be behind the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course. 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," then Education Minister Vladimir Filippov told RIA Novosti news agency in February 2004. On Ekho Moskvy 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 organisations to teach religion to state school pupils outside the framework of the educational programme with their and their parents' or guardians' consent (Article 5, Part 4). The Russian Orthodox Church argues that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture is not religious instruction and so may form part of the educational programme. However, as the 1992 Education Law prohibits activity by religious organisations in state educational institutions (Article 1, Part 5), regular teachers - rather than clergy - take lessons.
With growing reports that the Foundations of Orthodox Culture amounts in practice to compulsory religious instruction (see F18News 25 September 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1022), 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, current Education Minister Andrei Fursenko was catcalled at the Russian Orthodox Church's January 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 27 November meeting of three relevant Public Chamber committees produced a statement stressing the plurality of ethnicities, religions and worldviews 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, the Education Ministry's Social Committee was recommending a single culturological World Religions course taught using a textbook compiled by the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Sensing the state's shift, Orthodox Church leaders leapt to the defence of the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course. At the January 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, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, maintained that it was "a dubious religious studies course taught by people distant from what they teach".
At the same time, 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 adherents predominate. "We do not at all wish to create our own ideological monopoly in education," 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. "Despite the patriarch's repeated statements that the subject should be culturological, it is obvious that Divine Law [pre-1917 Orthodox catechism] is being dragged into schools, and in its most unfortunate form," Fr Petr Meshcherinov of the Patriarchal Centre for the Spiritual Development of Children and Youth at Moscow's Danilov Monastery remarked at a November 2006 round table on church youth work. While in favour of the Foundations of Orthodox Culture featuring in school curricula, Metropolitan Mefodi of Astana and Almaty (Kazakhstan) does not agree "with what we see in Russia in particular – that it takes place by force and under pressure," according to a 4 April 2007 Interfax report.
In addition to the way in which the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course is taught in some regions (see F18News 25 September 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1022), such concerns are sparked by views held by some clergy. Addressing the January 2003 Christmas Lectures, for example, Fr Yevgeni Sheshin from Samara and Syzran diocese insisted that the term "the Russian people" ["rossiisky narod", encompassing numerous ethnicities] was "social heresy". "It isn't true what we are told, that the Russian people is multicultural," he remarked. "This is a mononational state." Arguing that all state schools should be "culturally Russian" ["russky", denoting ethnic Russians], Fr Yevgeni described the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course as "an enlightenment tool" that "summons children and their parents to church".
Robust opposition from both academic and Muslim circles ultimately appears to have been instrumental in preventing broader state patronage 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'," representatives of the Russian Academy of Sciences wrote in a 23 July 2007 open letter to President Putin, "such a course should not be introduced into a multiethnic, multiconfessional country."
According to the Council of Muftis chairman, the idea that every Russian citizen should know the Orthodox culture and history of Russia means "foisting upon the whole of society the idea of the superiority of one culture and one people over the rest". The Foundations of Orthodox Culture course runs counter to the 1993 Constitution, Ravil Gainutdin maintained at a 30 January 2007 Moscow meeting of regional social organisations.
The rector of Moscow Islamic University stresses that Muslims in Russia are not recent immigrants. "All our generations – as far back as I know – are buried here," Marat Murtazin told Forum 18 in March 2007. However, he rejected parallel tuition of the Foundations of Islamic Culture as "a disastrous road for Russia". He said those advocating the Foundations of Orthodox Culture course are either trying to make everyone Orthodox – "and we're categorically opposed to that" - or to divide Russia into spheres of influence. "'These are our Orthodox and that's your Muslim area.' But that doesn't correspond with the principle of one Russia, unity." (END)
For a personal commentary by an Old Believer about continuing denial of equality to Russia's religious minorities see F18News http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=570
For more background see Forum 18's Russia religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=947
Reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Russia can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=10
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russi
8 August 2007
Russia's pursuit of religious and other extremists has intensified with recent amendments to the Extremism, Media and other laws, Forum 18 News Service notes. The legal definition of incitement to religious hatred is no longer restricted to activity involving violence or the threat of violence. Journalists describing a religious or other organisation that has been banned as extremist must now state this or face a heavy fine. Some prominent Russian Muslim representatives are deeply unhappy about state policy on extremism. They allege that justice has been misapplied in some recent trials and that, at the middle and lower tiers of authority, "state policy has become distorted and turned into the opposite of what it is meant to be." Mikhail Ostrovsky of the Presidential Administration responded that most of the cases raised lie within the competency of the judiciary and urged Muslims to refer concrete violations to the law enforcement agencies "in the prescribed manner". Opinion on Islamic extremism in Russia is polarised, being influenced by shifting and ambiguous definitions, rivalry between Islamic groups and state preferences for some Muslim organisations over others.
1 August 2007
Pastor Petr Barankevich of the Christ's Grace Evangelical Church is the latest Russian citizen to win a freedom of religion or belief case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The Court unanimously ruled that it was not lawful to ban the Church from meeting for worship in a public park, and that the authorities should uphold their right to meet in public. Pastor Barankevich told Forum 18 News Service that he thinks the financial compensation due from the Russian Government is "not as important" as upholding his rights. Ever since the Church was denied permission to meet for worship in a park in the town of Chekhov (Moscow Region) in 2002, it has not held any public events. "We thought there was no point in trying until the European Court resolved the issue." The Russian Government has not yet paid a group of Jehovah's Witnesses compensation due by 11 July under an earlier ECtHR judgment. However, after another 2007 ECtHR judgment became final, this time in favour of the Salvation Army, they were paid compensation. But the situation which led to that ECtHR judgment has not been addressed. Aleksandr Kharkov, of the Salvation Army, told Forum 18 that they are very concerned to get the original Moscow court ruling overturned, because it suggests the church is a paramilitary formation.
18 July 2007
Seven weeks after being arrested for religious activity, Baptist pastor Yevgeni Potolov has been deported to Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Potolov's deportation separates him from his wife and seven children. While he was in prison, the MSS secret police gave the Migration Service a document declaring the Pastor to be a "dangerous person." Forum 18 has been unable to find out from officials why Potolov was deported and why arrests, raids and deportations in punishment for peaceful religious activity are increasing. Others deported in earlier years for their religious activity have not been allowed to return to their homes. After Baptist leader Aleksandr Frolov was deported in June 2006, his wife Marina, a Turkmen citizen, appealed for him to be allowed back to live with her and their two young children. But in the face of Turkmenistan's refusal of family re-unification, she has now joined him in Russia. "I hadn't seen my husband for a year and didn't want our family to be split," she told Forum 18.