Church and state in Russia

MOSCOW, March 30 (JTA) — Should religion be taught at Russian public schools and, if yes, how can schools achieve a balance that would not hurt Jewish students and others from minority faiths? A Russian court decision to allow a controversial school textbook that Jewish and human rights groups say contains anti-Semitic passages has raised these broader church-state issues. Some Russians charge that allowing the introduction of religion in the schools would also introduce religious coercion into the country’s educational curriculum. But others, including Russia’s two chief rabbis, say teaching religion in schools would be a way to undo the damage caused by decades of Communist rule. On March 24, the Meschansky District Court upheld an earlier decision by Moscow prosecutors, who twice refused to bring charges of inciting ethnic strife against the editor and publisher of the Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture, a textbook that has been distributed to schools in Moscow and other regions. Critics say the textbook is full of xenophobia and spreads the idea of Jewish responsibility for killing Jesus. Some Orthodox Christian experts agree that the textbook is flawed. Yakov Krotov, a Christian writer, describes the textbook as containing some “medieval anti-Semitism.” The textbook, which was recommended for use by a joint panel of experts from the Ministry of Education and the Russian Orthodox Church, argues that Jesus died because the Jews were obsessed with “earthly well-being and power over other peoples” rather than spiritual values. The textbook authors have indicated that a second edition will take the complaints of human rights activists into account. Though the court’s decision to dismiss a hate crime case has irritated some human rights and Jewish defense activists, many in the Jewish community are more concerned by the broader issues. Religious education in public schools is a highly sensitive and controversial subject in Russia, where interpretations of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state vary greatly, and a system of church-state relations is being painfully developed after decades of Soviet atheism. Says Peter Shelisch, a Jewish member of Russia’s Parliament: “To teach religion at public schools is destructive for the society. The question is not even about how Jews and other minorities are treated within the framework of such a course. There is a danger that such a step would change the secular nature of our schools.” Leading Jewish religious authorities disagree. “To me there is no doubt that a religious component in education is needed to fill a vacuum of ideology left after Communism,” says Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis. Adolph Shayevich, Russia’s other chief rabbi, agrees with Lazar. “I have a very positive attitude toward the introduction in Russian schools of optional classes on the foundations of [Russian] Orthodox history,” he said in an interview with the Moscow daily Izvestiya. Both rabbis stress that such a course should be voluntary. But Lazar admits that peer pressure on minority students should not be underestimated when an optional course on religion is introduced. “When there is a single Jewish kid in class, chances are high that he will join his friends at the lesson of Orthodoxy.” Other minority religious leaders — most notably Muslims — have also voiced their opposition to the introduction of the study of Orthodox Christianity into the curriculum of public schools. The textbook on Russian Christianity was introduced last year in some Russian schools as part of an optional course on religious culture for sixth-graders. A document from the Ministry of Education that outlined the basic elements of the course — and opened the door to the controversial textbook — was made public late last fall. The document was criticized as violating the principle of church-state separation and as paving the way for the introduction of Christianity in the country’s public schools. Education Ministry officials have defended the course, saying it was “cultural” rather than religious. Responding to criticism, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov has repeatedly stated that his agency is not going to introduce religious instruction into the public school system. More than 90 percent of Russian schoolchildren are believed to be attending public schools. In fact, what education officials approved is a course called Orthodox Culture — a result of lobbying on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church — as part of a broader course on the History of Religious Culture that should be dealing with all faiths that have official status as Russia’s traditional faiths, including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. In reality however, the first step made last year presented a major challenge to minorities because no religion except Orthodox Christianity prepared its own textbook to be used in public schools. Many doubt that educators would welcome a book dedicated solely to any of the minority religions. Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, says Jewish groups should seek a compromise in a newly proposed textbook on Religions of the Peoples of Russia, which the Education Ministry wants to make into a standard for an optional course in public schools. “There is a working group within the ministry that will most likely commission each of the faiths to submit their own portion of the textbook,” says Kogan. “This could be an acceptable compromise to what is currently being offered.” Lazar said he would like to see the day at public schools started with a minute of silence for all the kids to reflect and contemplate on spiritual matters in their own way. He admits, though, that this would not be a satisfactory option for the Russian Orthodox Church.

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