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Across the Former Soviet Union Church-state Issue Hits Russia As Christian Classes Start in Schools

September 6, 2006
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The introduction of obligatory public-school courses on Russian Orthodox culture is sending ripples through the Jewish community of Russia. The curriculum change, which took effect in four regions last Friday, the first day of the school year, is bringing the religion-state issue to the surface in post-Communist Russia.

Liberals, members of some minority faiths and educators say the change, which was publicized only two days before the school year began, violates the principle of church-state separation in the Russian Constitution.

While several regions in Russia have offered a similar course as an elective for several years, the regions in question became the first of Russia’s 89 provinces to make the study of Russian Orthodox culture compulsory.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, said in an Aug. 29 interview with a Moscow radio station that the course on Orthodox culture will “divide children into different classes” and ostracize minorities.

A Jewish umbrella group called on Jewish parents to immediately report cases where Jewish children are pressured into attending the classes.

The Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, or KEROOR, an umbrella group for non-Chasidic Orthodox congregations, said in a statement last Friday that any such cases should be reported to the Chief Rabbinate in Moscow. On Tuesday, the group said it had not received any complaints yet.

Vladimir Pliss, a KEROOR spokesman, told JTA the group was not protesting the new subject itself but was outraged that it had been made obligatory.

The course in “Foundations of Orthodox Culture” was introduced as part of the compulsory curriculum in the Orel, Belogorod, Kaluga and Ryazan regions of central Russia, which have small communities of a few thousand Jews.

Interviews with Jewish leaders and activists in some Russian regions indicated that some other regions may offer the classes as well.

Andrei Osherov, a Jewish leader in the city of Kostroma in central Russia, told JTA that a new Christian course, “The Origins,” was introduced for the first time last week and made compulsory for students in all grades there.

“I’m the father of twin sons who just entered the second grade of a secular school,” Osherov said. “I myself, my wife and children are Jewish, and I cannot agree with the situation.”

Aside from the statement by KEROOR — which went unreported in the national media — the organized Jewish community has remained relatively quiet on the matter.

Observers say it’s because Jewish leaders don’t want to irritate the Russian Orthodox Church, the nation’s predominant faith, which long has pressed authorities to bring religion into the public schools.

However, the Interfax news agency ran a statement Monday by Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, KEROOR’s chairman, who spoke with approval about the curriculum change. Interfax quoted Kogan as saying that all Russians have “to be familiar with religious culture of the people of Russia and with the culture of Russian Orthodoxy.”

Kogan said he was expressing his personal opinion, and wasn’t speaking as a representative of his group.

Some leaders of the Muslim community and the Russian education minister, who contended that such courses should be offered as electives only, have spoken out against the curriculum change.

A leading independent expert on Jewish-Christian relations said the move is just the latest example of the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox church, which in the past few years has forged a close alliance with the federal and local governments.

“The trend is very troubling. Despite the resistance from the Education Ministry, the church is pressing very hard to advance its interest at schools,” Yuri Tabak said. “The church wants to assume the dominant ideological role” in society.

Some attribute the church’s growing influence to the fact that President Vladimir Putin is the first practicing Christian to become Russian leader since before the Communist takeover in 1917.

Meanwhile, the Council of Muftis of Russia said it would push the government to expand instruction of Muslim culture in regions with established Muslim communities.

But most Jewish leaders say it would be better for minority religions if schools taught no religion at all nor provided students with an optional course on religion.

“We believe that even elective courses or a choice of different religions is unacceptable at school,” said Boruch Gorin, spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the country’s leading Jewish group.

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