Russia's school year began recently with debate raging about the appropriateness and efficacy of a course on Orthodox Christian culture amid reports that four regions were making it mandatory and another 11 introducing it as an optional subject ‚Äì writes Sophia Kishkovsky for Ecumenical News International.
Opponents of the course say it is an effort by the Russian Orthodox Church to introduce religious instruction in schools in a manner comparable to the formerly mandatory study of communist ideology. Supporters say the course is inoffensive and is essential to understand Russian culture, such as the masterpieces by Andrei Rublev, considered to be the greatest Russian iconographer.
"All people who want to declare Orthodoxy as the foundation of the country, and one people as the big brother of another, are enemies of Russia," said Arslan Sadriyev, the deputy chairperson of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the European Part of Russia, at a 15 September 2006 meeting organized to discuss the course.
But speaking to reporters on the eve of the school year, Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church said the course was not meant to exclude people of other faiths.
"If there are people of other faiths living in our country, they must, of course, study their culture, but they must also know the history and culture of the country in which they live," said the patriarch.
Russia's Council of Muftis and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organisations of Russia have issued statements warning against mandatory Orthodox studies in state schools. Leaders of Russian republics with Muslim majorities, such as Dagestan and Bashkortostan, also spoke out.
Still, Roman Catholic leaders have accepted the course with equanimity, which is seen as reflecting steadily improved relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Rev Igor Kovalevsky, general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Russia, told the Interfax news agency he thought the course would be "useful for all of Russia's multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society".