Fourth Graders to Study Religion
Yesterday the Ministry of Education and Science issued an order introducing Religious Education and Secular Ethics into the school program. The subject will be compulsory from the next academic year. Parents should already be choosing which religion their children will study. There is still much controversy surrounding the issue. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin believes that it should be taught by "priests and theologists."
Religious Education and Secular Ethics will be included in the fourth grade program, with 34 academic hours of teaching set aside for it (it was previously divided into two parts, one to be taught in the last quarter of the fourth grade and the other in the first quarter of the fifth grade).
Students can choose one of six modules: World Religions, Secular Ethics and the basics of Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism. The modules must be chosen by the beginning of March so that schools can order a sufficient number of textbooks.
The order was issued after a long dispute between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Education Ministry. The Church insisted on introducing Russian Orthodox Culture into schools, while the ministry argued that religion has no place in a secular school. A compromise was reached: students can choose for themselves. Schools in 19 regions already tried out the subject in the last quarter of the 2010 academic year. According to statistics, 42% of parents signed their children up to Secular Ethics, with 18% preferring World Religions. About 30% chose Russian Orthodox Christianity, 9% Islam, and 1% each for Buddhism and Judaism.
Both officials and religious leaders stressed that the subject should be taught by ordinary teachers. "No priests in schools," Education Minister Andrei Fursenko has repeatedly said. This, however, might change. At his meeting with religious leaders on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin said that he believes these subjects should be taught by religious experts.
For the clergymen, this was a surprising development which provoked another controversy. "Originally, we were against priests teaching in secular schools. They should only teach in Sunday schools," Gulnar Gaziyeva of the Russian Council of Muftis told Kommersant. "This is a secular view of faith, therefore it must be taught by school teachers," said Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, Vice President of the Russian Congress of Jewish Religious Associations. Andrei Balzhirov, a permanent representative of the Buddhist traditional sangha, refrained from commenting.
"There is no need for priests to teach this subject," said German Demidov of the ROC. Instead, the ROC is proposing that teachers be approved by the clergy. "Religious organizations must have the casting vote in assigning teachers of religious matters in schools," Demidov added. He did not cite any particular criteria for such an assessment, stating only that teachers "must have reverence, respect and understanding for the Church."
The ROC also claims that teaching of the subject should be extended beyond the fourth grade and that first graders as well as high school students should learn about religion.