Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a pilot project Tuesday that will require schoolchildren to take classes in religion or secular ethics.
The proposal is part of a Kremlin effort to teach young Russians
morals in the wake of a turbulent period of uncertainty following
the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union.
Medvedev said preteen students at about 12,000 schools in 18
Russian regions would take the classes. They will be offered the
choice of studying the dominant Russian Orthodox religion, Islam,
Buddhism or Judaism, or of taking an overview of all four faiths,
or a course in secular ethics.
Students and their parents must be allowed to choose freely,
Medvedev said in addressing top clerics and officials at his
residence outside Moscow. "Any coercion, pressure will be
absolutely unacceptable and counterproductive," he said.
By 2012, the classes might be expanded nationwide, Medvedev
said. The pilot project includes about 20 percent of Russia's
The offer of a choice appeared aimed to ease concerns that
Russian Orthodoxy will be forced on schoolchildren as the church
gains influence and tightens ties with the state.
Mandatory classes in Orthodox culture were introduced in a few
Russian regions three years ago, but they alarmed adherents of
other confessions who said religion has no place in schools in a
secular state. The classes also were criticized as being
reminiscent of the forced study of communism or scientific atheism
during Soviet times, with one mandatory ideology being substituted
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has long pushed for the
introduction of Orthodox classes in schools, but he was careful not
to criticize the president's initiative. "The free choice and
alternatives could serve as the basis for a system" of religious
classes, he said.
Medvedev emphasized that the classes will include only "the
largest of Russia's traditional religions" - Orthodox
Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. He omitted other faiths,
such as Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, which the Orthodox
Church accuses of proselytizing.
Some nonreligious Russians complain that the church has tailored
its doctrine to suit the government, which has justified Russia's
retreat from Western-style democracy by saying the country has a
unique history and culture.
Church and state are officially separate under the post-Soviet
constitution, but Orthodox leaders seek a more muscular role for
the church, which has served the state for much of its 1,000-year
The Russian Orthodox Church counts in its congregation more than
100 million people in Russia and tens of millions elsewhere. But
polls show that only about 5 percent of Russians are observant