The Russian Orthodox Church has obtained permission to use rooms at Moscow’s secular secondary schools free of charge for Sunday classes. Human rights activists have two questions to ask: Doesn’t this run counter to the principle of secular education? and Won’t the rights of other religions be infringed?
If the authorities exert no pressures on school administrations, and if other religions and confessions enjoy the same opportunities, there is nothing to be afraid of, analysts believe.
Orthodox Sunday schools will be able to use rooms at Moscow’s secondary educational institutions on Sundays, the head of the Public Council at the city department of education, Nina Minko, said on the Moscow-24 round-the-clock news channel.
According to the official, the Catechesis Department of the Moscow Diocese turned to the department of education with a request for permission to use rooms at ordinary schools during vacant hours, because Russian Orthodox Church Sunday schools are in dire need for rooms where to hold classes.
“We have considered the issue together with the education law center and ruled that that a final decision should depend on the management board of each school. In case of approval the religious education department and the school will conclude a lease contract on disinterested terms,” Minko said.
The request addressed to the Moscow authorities came from the head of the religious education and catechism department of the Moscow City Diocese, hieromonch Onisim (Bamblevsky). He told the daily Kommersant that at the moment there were nearly 300 Sunday schools and groups in the Moscow diocese, but “many of them need better or new facilities.”
The news has drawn comments from some other traditional religions.
“I believe that this issue must be approached on the basis of equality, deputy head of the Council of Russia’s Muftis, Rushan Abbyasov, told Kommersant. “We have similar problems. As you may know, mosques in Moscow are few, so communities have to rent rooms for Sunday schools. All other traditional religious organizations should be allowed to use the facilities of ordinary secondary schools then.”
The president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Associations and Organizations in Russia, Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, has declared an intention to file a similar request.
“That’s a violation of the law, because our education is secular,” says the head of the human rights organization Agora, Pavel Chikov. “Even though formally a permission is to be issued by the school’s management, we all understand the degree of schools’ dependence on the department of education.”
He believes that the question of religious education “is extremely sensitive in Russian society.” “Such preferences may be requested by the Muslims, Judaists, Buddhists, Adventists, Krishnaites, Jehovah’s Witnesses and everybody else. What shall we have at our schools in the end?
Leasing school rooms does not run counter to the principle of secular education enshrined in the Constitution, if the authorities put no pressures on school management, political scientist Alexey Makarkin told TASS. “But attempts to dictate an informal obligation would be an obvious violation of the Constitution. That’s where the border line lies.”
Makarkin also foresees a certain risk “quasi-religious associations, which in some countries are prohibited as sects, may be queuing up for the same right.”
“If the principle of voluntariness is observed, and if other religions enjoy the same rights, and if this privilege is granted only to traditional ones, recognized by the state, no negative consequences will ensue,” Makarkin said.