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Russia Religion News Current News Items

Religion question increasingly painful

Initiators of school course hope that it will not engender new outbursts in the spirit of "Pussy Riot." Parents and experts doubtful
by Natalia Afanaseva, RIA Novosti observer
Religiia i pravo, 29 March 2012

By the end of March, third-graders will have to determine their confessional preferences. Beginning 1 September 2012 a new subject, "Foundations of religious cultures and secular ethics," will be introduced into fourth-grade classes in the schools. It is only some 34 class-hours, but it is evoking disputes in society that transcend the boundaries of purely pedagogical discussion.

It seems the religion question is becoming in Russia more and more painful. The situation surrounding the "Pussy Riot" stunt is like letting the genie out of the bottle. From a banal outburst it has unexpectedly and rapidly grown into a genuine ideological clash, revealing a split in society and bringing to life unusually harsh statements, both on the part of defenders of the girls and on the part of those who condemn them.

Can the new subject help our children with respect for and interest in diverse cultures and religious tradition? Or will it become another occasion for mutual insults and strife?

Buddhists to the left, atheists to the right

In July 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ardently approved in a meeting with representatives of traditional religions their idea of introducing foundations of religious culture in the schools. The title of the subject has been changed and corrected several times and it finally has attained the long and comprehensive title of "Foundations of religious cultures and secular ethics," abbreviated ORKSE. In April 2010, an experiment with the new discipline was introduced in almost 10 thousand schools in 21 Russian regions.

The Russian government found the experiment successful. Educational institutions where the new course was tested reported that it increased tolerance, interest, and respect for diverse cultures and religious traditions in young pupils.

The government confirmed the plan of action of introducing in the 2012/2013 academic year the "Foundations of religious cultures and secular ethics" course in general education institutions on the territory of the entire country. Schools are urgently purchasing textbooks; elementary school teachers are increasing their skills, studying the foundations of Judaism and Buddhism; parents are thinking about which of the six proposed modules to select for their child. And meanwhile an acute, sometimes not entirely tolerant discussion is raging in society.

Experts on matters of religion debate whether it is necessary to divide the course into several modules and educators are arguing about the quality of the training of teachers or the excess load on pupils. Sociologists and attorneys are pondering the topic of the correspondence of the new course with the fourteenth article of the Russian constitution, which proclaims the secularity of the state.

But the most serious danger pertains to whether the subject, whose goal is developing toleration and interest in other cultures and national religious traditions, will become another source of future rejection of "alien" religion, "alien" opinion, and "alien" worldviews.

There is such a danger, thinks Tamara Eidelman, director of the department of history in Moscow gymnasium No. 1567, chairman of the board of the interregional public "Association of teachers of history" organization, and coordinator of the interethnic educational project, "Mosaic of cultures."  "Our society, even without [the course] is split in many ways, and now yet another one is appearing. Already in fourth grade the children are actually divided along religious lines: Orthodox go to one class, Jews to another, atheists to a third. . . . It would be better if the children were shown that at the basis of all religions lies the idea of good, that Islam is not jihad and Christianity is not only the inquisition. But since this course is designed for young schoolchildren, there will not be any analysis or comparison of religious thought. The thing is limited to fairy tales on a religious theme," Tamara Eidelman explained her position.

Roman Lunkin, director of the Institute of Religion and Law of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences and associate of the Center for the Study of Problems of Religion and Society, disagrees. The results of the experiment have refuted such concerns.  "In practically all regions where this course was introduced for approval, everything went cleanly, precisely, delicately, and without serious conflicts. This was due, of course, to teachers who knew how to approach the subject sensitively and tolerantly. The Russian federation is a secular state; this is written in the constitution. As long as schools do not impose one of the religions and the subject is taught by secular teachers, this course does not violate the 14th article of the constitution, which declares that no religion may be established as a state or obligatory religion. It is good that parents are offered alternatives for selection; this guarantees the observance of the law on freedom of conscience and religious confession."

Parents offered alternative.  They chose ethics.

Before the end of March, current third-graders, or more precisely, their parents, were told to select for study next year one of six modules, for which six textbooks have been published by the "Prosveshchenie" press.

The department of general education of the Ministry of Education and Science has already announced preliminary data and they are curious. It turned out that an overwhelming number of parents preferred "universal" disciplines: around 41% in general decided to shield their children from a religious topic, selecting the neutral "secular ethics," and another 20% decided to acquaint children with the foundations of all world religions.

"This means that common sense has prevailed," Tamara Eidelman thinks. "In essence, parents chose the lesser evil. Because it is clear that in any case this course will result in a profanation. And it lays an enormous load and responsibility on elementary school teachers. Most likely, this extra hour per week will be turned into yet another class in reading and writing. Foundations of world religions, in one way or another, are now taught in various courses—history, literature, geography, art history, social studies. For elementary schools this course is just too much of a load."

At the same time, more than a third of Russians selected for study one of the confessional modules:  Orthodoxy, around 30%; Islam, 5.6%; Buddhism, a bit more than one percent; and only one tenth of one percent of a little less than one and a half million future fourth-graders undertook to study Judaism.

A coauthor of the textbook "Foundations of the religious and moral culture of peoples of Russia. Foundations of Jewish culture," an assistant to the chief rabbi of Russia, Andrei Glotser, emphasized that from the very beginning their group opposed dividing religions by modules.

"That a majority chose a neutral course confirms our fears of the harm of dividing classes into modules. Schools simply are not in a position to guarantee that choice.  This is a snag; it is unrealistic to provide a teacher for one pupil who chose Buddhism or Judaism. So the schools are trying to persuade parents to avoid fragmentation."

Deacon Andrei Kuraev, author of the course "Foundations of religious and moral cultures of the people of Russia. Foundations of Orthodox culture," also thinks that it is fundamentally wrong to say that parents consciously chose "secular ethics": "Every day I get complaints that in the schools they are forbidding them to make a choice for the confessional modules, and particularly 'Orthodoxy.' The administration is disingenuously saying that there are no teachers or textbooks and it actually forces them to choose 'Foundations of secular ethics.'"

In Roman Lunkin's opinion, a substantially greater number of parents chose the "Orthodoxy" module than sociologists had predicted: "In various regions from 20% to 30% chose it," the expert explains. "While by various sociological measures, only 3 to 10 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox."

Cadres decide everything

According to data from the "Prosveshchenie" Open Virtual University for Raising the Credentials of Education Workers, schools still prefer to train elementary school teachers who also teach all the other subjects for the ORKISE course. Contact classes have been arranged in Moscow, while in other cities distance learning is used. The preparation course includes all six modules; that is, as a rule both secular ethics and Buddhism will be taught by one and the same teacher.

"The basic problem in the implementation of this course is the lack of qualified personnel. As the coauthor of a textbook, I conducted classes for courses in raising the credentials for teachers and I answered questions from tutors, that is, from trainers who will train teachers of the new course. Catastrophic ignorance is manifested even at that level," Andrei Glotser said. "It is not their fault. There are too few people in the country who would be able to clearly explain their religion."

According to Glotser, he has faced the fact that teachers do not know anything about Judaism, nor about Christianity or Islam. "At the same time, I was given only two hours for the course. And three months for preparing the handbook and gathering material and adapting it to children's ability."

"It seems these resources are far from perfection," the assistant to the chief rabbi of Russia says.

However, our educational institutions apparently are used to dealing with any, even the most contradictory, tasks. For example, the director of Moscow school No. 261, Pavel Karpov, views the appearance of the new subject optimistically:  "Believe me; three hours a week is not a prohibitive load for teachers. Naturally, everything depends on the qualifications and personal abilities of the teacher, but as they say, you have to work with what you have."

"In our school, for example, we have two staff members who have religious studies education," the director continues. "One of these will teach 'Foundations of world religions,' which a majority of parents have chosen; the other, 'Orthodoxy,' which two people chose. Another two parents insisted on 'Foundations of secular ethics.' I think we will find a teacher for them. It would be more complicated if somebody had chosen Islam. But nobody chose it."

Like a foreign language here

In the opinion of the developers of the new subject, "the goal of the ORKSE academic course is the formation in the young child of motivations for conscientious moral conduct based on knowledge of and respect for the cultures and religious traditions of the multinational nation of Russia and also for a dialogue with representatives of other cultures and worldviews."

In reality, a desire to study a strange culture and strange religion has still not been observed. For example, the deputy chairman of the Ecclesiastical Board of Muslims of the European Part of Russia, Farid Asadullin, speaking at a round table on the topic "Teaching of the foundations of religions in schools: a path to division or to civic harmony?", noted that in those regions where Muslims live compactly,  the attitude toward the subject is ambiguous:  "Several school directors in the Caucasus approach the question very simply; 99% of the residents of the aul are Muslim so there cannot be any module other than 'Foundations of Islamic culture.'"

But even without this testimony, it is obvious that Russians favor the intense study of "their own" religion.

"No one course achieves its goals fully," Deacon Andrei Kuraev says. "For some this may even be harmful; some will be alienated; some will be forced to be evasive. As in any mass project, society has reacted to the new subject ambiguously. But this is also good. As a result people have seen some material for discussion. After all it is not good when Christianity is associated for the majority of people only with fat priests in Mercedes. It is good if as a result of this course some teachers raise their professional level by studying the foundations of religious cultures, and some parents open an Orthodox book for the first time, and some children in the future recall some light from their school life."

"Here it must be remembered that training in moral, including religious, principles is the business of the family," school director Pavel Karpov specifies. "To figure that the schools will take upon themselves these functions is unthinkable. We can give only a dotted line and identify topics. And in this sense the new course, in my view, is good. But it is like a foreign language—only one's personal effort will lead to results."  (tr. by PDS, posted 30 March 2012)

Russia Religion News Current News Items

Protestant mayor in Far East slandered in media

Mayor of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur suffers for faith
by Nina Zabrebina
Religiia i pravo, 29 March 2012

Our readers probably recall the religious conflict in the election campaign in the city of Toliati. Now there is a repeat of the situation that we did not have to wait long for. The next victim of a "brawl" artificially created by people who are greedy for power is the mayor of the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, Petr Volynskii, who belongs to the confession of Evangelical Christians, which is a traditional Russian religion.

Using the fact of his religious affiliation, there have begun to appear in the press made-to-order filthy articles, all of whose accusations come down to the following:  "At the beginning of the 1990s Volynskii came to Nikolaevsk-on-Amur from Argentina as a preacher of a religious sect, the Khabarovsk Express newspaper reports. Here he became director of the Russian organization "Private Housing." In October 2010, running on the "Fair Russia" ticket, he amassed the majority of votes in the election for head of the city. It was due to the techniques that he acquired in the sect, accustoming him to preach to large crowds, that he managed to influence the residents of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur and get their votes in the election."

However, his envious opponents did not limit themselves to some dirty techniques. Five of the fifteen deputies sent to the governor of Khabarovsk territory, Viacheslav Shport, an appeal to remove the incumbent mayor from office. According to some reports, the "war" was initiated by the district administration including a deputy of the district Soviet of Deputies, I.V. Starodubtsev, along with individual representatives of business, who are offended by an incorruptible mayor. The reason for all that has happened is as old as the world—the desire of the incumbent head of the district to eliminate a rival in the upcoming election of the head of Nikolaevsk district, that will be held in March of next year. Apparently the head of the district, judging by the statements of ordinary citizens, does not enjoy the respect of the latter and, having seen the danger in the popularity with the population of the mayor of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, he has decided to quash his rival.

Meanwhile, despite the dirty campaign for discrediting the mayor, the citizens have understood very well the essence of the conflict, which consists in the greed for power and money on the part of a certain small group of well-known persons, who are being mentioned in city forums.

So, for example, the residents of the city reacted to a made-to-order article in a local newspaper, "MK in Khabarovsk" that reported unverified facts. Mayor Volynskii, a man who is wearing himself out for the city, is being prevented from working. There was an attempt to quash him in his campaign even before the election of Volynskii as mayor, but it was thanks to the "Private Housing" organization that prices for utilities were not jacked up to breathtaking heights. Representatives of competitors, going door to door, tried by means of deception to get for themselves as part of the housing fund (and they partly succeeded). And as competitors they lost to "Private Housing." With regard to the administration of the district: you should check the head of the district, Lysakov, who during the time of his own term in office grew commercial pharmacies for whom he had privatized buildings in the center of town, including a former museum. I do not share Volynskii's religious views. I do support his business acumen that he has demonstrated by his work and integrity.

In sum, the unscrupulous game begun by representatives of government along with representatives of business has already provoked a storm of indignation in the city. Citizens have begun a collection signatures in support of the mayor and they are ready to conduct demonstrations.

Will the governor put a stop to greedy mudslingers or will evil triumph over good, unlike in fairy tales? (tr. by PDS, posted 30 March 2012)

Russia Religion News Current News Items

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