Moscow (AsiaNews) The teaching of the Orthodox religion has now become mandatory in the high schools of four provinces of what once was the atheist Soviet state. In July Moscow's Spiritual Academy approved "Basics of Orthodox Culture", a course soon to be taught in the provinces of Belgorod, Kaluga, Brjansk and Smolensk. By 2010, the Moscow Patriarchate should have trained some 10,000 religious teachers. In 11 other provinces, religion will be taught but won't be mandatory.
These developments reflect the Russian Orthodox Church's plan to have religion taught across the country. By contrast, government officials are planning a more general course on the "History of World Religions" so as to not offend the country's religious minorities.
Aleksij II, patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, is convinced that "pupils should know the history of their culture, and this is the goal of 'Basics of Orthodox Culture'." He also believes that this is true for other religions as well.
In a statement to the press released yesterday, Aleksij II said that "if there are people in our country who profess other religions, they should certainly study their own culture but they should also know the culture of the country in which they live".
Just over a year ago, the proposal to make a one hour lesson in Orthodox religion mandatory had provoked tensions between the Russian Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate
In June 2005, Mgr Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Catholic Metropolitan of Moscow, said that churches, not classrooms, were better indicated to discuss religious education and the basics of religion.
Bishop Mark, deputy chairman of the External Relations Department of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, responded to Mgr Kondrusiewicz charging him with putting Catholic-Orthodox dialogue at risk.
The controversy ended when Mgr Antonio Pennini, papal nuncio to Russia, wrote a letter to Bishop Mark saying that the Vatican would support the Russian Orthodox Church in its efforts to get religious education into the schools.
It remains however to be seen what religious education actually means. In Russia a federal law bans religion from schools and the Russian constitution clearly sanctions the separation between state and religion.