RUSSIA: What should Tuvan children believe?
The traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva, bordering north-west Mongolia, closed a Christian children's home, Forum 18 News Service was told by a religious affairs official, as "the children go to church and pray without the permission of their parents or guardians." This is disputed by a former resident, Anna Mongush, who told Forum 18 that the real reason for the closure was that the only non-Christian staff member alleged in court that the home was a "sect," after she was sacked for theft, and the state authorities "thought they could get something from its closure." Highlighting broader confusion over religious education policy, Bible translator Vitali Voinov noted that neither Russia's Constitution, nor the religion law, allow for faith-based orphanages and that much in school religious education depends upon individual teachers. Some tell pupils that they should be Buddhists and visit shamans, while forbidding them from attending Christian churches. Foundations of Orthodox Culture is an optional school subject and this causes controversy, the head of the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims told Forum 18.
The authorities closed down Gentle Hands children's home approximately a year ago, because its staff insisted "that the children go to church and pray without the permission of their parents or guardians," religious affairs official Kambaa Biche-Ool maintained to Forum 18. Speaking in his office in the Tuvan capital Kyzyl on 1 July, Biche-Ool said that parents and guardians had voluntarily transferred their children to the Gentle Hands Children's Home while being unaware of its religious connections. Set up in Kyzyl in 2001 by Grace of Christ Pentecostal Church, both the children's home and church were founded by Norwegian missionary Tor Arild Svanes.
However, Anna Mongush rejected Biche-Ool's allegations, stressing that Tuva was still feeling the loss of a specifically Christian children's home. A Christian before she entered the home at the age of 14, Mongush told Forum 18 on 5 July that the 16 residents' parents took no interest in their children and had willingly given them over to the home - in the full knowledge that it was Christian - after seeing its excellent living conditions. A resident throughout the home's three-year period of operation, Mongush also pointed out to Forum 18 that children who did not like its ethos were able to and sometimes did leave: "Nothing was forced upon us. It was heaven, like living in a family."
The real reason for Gentle Hands' closure, according to Mongush, was that the only non-Christian staff member alleged in court that the home was a "sect" brainwashing the children after she was sacked for theft, and the state authorities "thought they could get something from its closure." Following court liquidation, she said, the children went to live with either church members or alcoholic relatives, or were moved to state orphanages, and the up to 100 Grace of Christ members now attend different Kyzyl churches. Her version of events concurred with that given to Forum 18 on 1 July by Vitali Voinov, a member of the Kyzyl-based Gospel Light Baptist Church and translator of the Bible into Tuvan. Forum 18 has not received a response from either Tor Arild Svanes, or his colleague Gretha Raddum.
Voinov told Forum 18 that he was concerned that there is nothing in Russia's Constitution or religion law to allow for faith-based orphanages. This highlights broader confusion about religious education in Russia. While regional educational authorities have been able to introduce Foundations of Orthodox Culture as an optional school subject in recent years, Russia's 1992 education law continues to assert that "state education policy is to be based upon secular principles". In Tuva, according to Voinov, much depends upon individual teachers, with some "very open" to Christian churches and others regularly taking pupils to Buddhist temples or shaman centres to be blessed.
Religious affairs official Biche-Ool told Forum 18 that, while Tuva has no Foundations of Buddhist Culture subject, its schools use works on shamanism by shaman society president Kenin-Lopsan Mongush as textbooks for the Customs and Traditions of the Tuvan People subject. He added that Mongush was currently devising a syllabus covering what schoolchildren of various ages ought to know about shamanism.
At Good News (formerly Sun Bok Ym) Charismatic Church on 1 July, elder preacher Buyan Khomushku told Forum 18 that Customs and Traditions of the Tuvan People was compulsory only in schools where there is a particular emphasis on the Tuvan language, of which there are two in Kyzyl. While he thought that it did not have a specifically religious content, Khomushku did say that many schoolteachers tell Tuvan pupils that they should be Buddhists and visit shamans, while forbidding them from attending Christian churches. Although not aware of any expulsions, he also told Forum 18 that there were "many threats", and maintained that a Christian teacher in the far western Bai-Taiga kozhuun (district) of Tuva is still without work four years after being sacked for her beliefs.
The Good News Charismatic Church, Tuva's largest Christian church, has disbanded following official attempts to liquidate it. But the church hopes to be re-registered, following local Justice Ministry promises not to oppose a re-registration application (see F18News 18 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=609 ).
In his annual address to Russia's Federal Assembly on 25 April, President Vladimir Putin urged those present – including religious leaders – not to forget, in the words of one Russian philosopher, that "the state cannot demand of its citizens faith, prayer, love, kindness or convictions". Speaking to Forum 18 in Saratov on 5 June, however, head of the Volga Region Spiritual Directorate of Muslims Mukaddas Bibarsov said that since its introduction in Saratov region in September 2004, the controversial Foundations of Orthodox Culture subject has in practice turned out not to be optional: "Older pupils can choose but the younger ones end up going." If the course dealt simply with topics such as church architecture, he said, the Muslim community would have no issue with it, "but it isn't being put into the curriculum to teach about architecture – in practice it is mission, the Christianisation of our children."
Bibarsov pointed Forum 18 to the April 2005 issue of the directorate's newspaper, in which one Muslim mother recalls how she found in her 12-year-old son's Foundations of Orthodox Culture exercise book the phrases: "As one of the branches of Christianity, Orthodoxy is today considered the most perfect religion" and "the Koran orders the killing of infidels, that is, non-Muslims". The evening before her son celebrated his birthday at home in December 2004, she added, he asked her not to tell classmate party guests that the family was Muslim.
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=509
A printer-friendly map of Russia is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=russi
18 July 2005
During a January check-up by the religious affairs department in the traditionally Buddhist Russian republic of Tuva, officials complained the charismatic Sun Bok Ym church in the regional capital Kyzyl had violated its charter by sending its pastor to a neighbouring region and failed to inform the department of its new address. Officials of the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service, set up last October, began moves to liquidate it through the courts, so the church decided to disband to avoid this fate. Pastor Bair Kara-Sal told Forum 18 News Service he believes a promise by local justice department officials in court that they will not oppose a new registration application. Both Catholic and Salvation Army leaders have complained to Forum 18 that the Federal Registration Service has made nit-picking objections to terminology in their documents and refused to allow them to make simple corrections.
11 July 2005
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II has politely sidelined Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's attempt to split the dozen or so Russian Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan away from the Central Asian diocese, and subordinate them directly to the Patriarch. A Moscow-based priest familiar with the situation, who preferred not to be identified, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the Church itself has to make such decisions, not the state. The priest told Forum 18 that he believes President Niyazov "wants the Orthodox Church to exist, but a Church that is in his hand, just as he has done with Islam." Stressing that the Moscow Patriarchate is keen to see an end to the tensions between the Church and the Turkmen government, the priest deplored the denial of visas to three or four priests who the diocese wished to send to serve in Turkmenistan, and the refusal of the Turkmen government so far to re-register Russian Orthodox parishes.
8 July 2005
The head of the missionary and catechism department of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye Orthodox diocese, Fr Vladimir Zaitsev, has pressured Sverdlovsk Regional Railway into cancelling a three-day congress of 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It was due to happen in a railway-administered stadium, and Fr. Zaitsev requested, in a letter publicised on local state TV and seen by Forum 18, that the congress be barred. He names Russian and foreign academics and Russian state bodies and "numerous documents issued by the traditional Christian churches of Europe [unnamed]," who, he claims, see Jehovah's Witnesses as "a destructive religious organisation (totalitarian sect, destructive cult)." Zaitsev also wrote that they offered to collaborate with Hitler and so "you will agree that in the sixtieth anniversary year [of the end of the Second World War] our compatriots will find this [allowing the congress to happen] particularly provocative." Jehovah's Witnesses were the target of intense Nazi persecution, and it is estimated that about 10,000 were imprisoned for their faith in concentration camps.