By Nabi Abdullaev / The Moscow Times
President Dmitry Medvedev pledged Tuesday to support the study of religion in schools and hiring chaplains from major Russian religions, in what could pose a major challenge to the constitutional separation of religion and state.
“I have made a decision to support both these ideas: teaching the basics of religious culture and secular ethics in Russian schools, and I also consider it expedient to organize on a regular basis the work of clergymen representing traditional Russian confessions in our Armed Forces,” Medvedev said at the meeting with top religious and government officials at his Barvikha residence outside Moscow.
The so-called traditional Russian confessions include Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
Medvedev said he based his decision on requests and suggestions sent to him by religious leaders.
The two initiatives are among the most debated and controversial in Russian society. Their critics claim that the Russian Orthodox Church is significantly better prepared to install its priests in schools and garrisons, which would leave others at a disadvantage. Opponents also say a conflict of subordination could arise in military units between priests and commanders.
Other say that teaching religious classes in schools would likely degenerate into religious propaganda, while little freedom would be left for nonbelieving or non-Christian soldiers who do not want to attend religious services.
Proponents of the initiatives — with the most vocal being the Russian Orthodox Church — maintain that they would boost the morals and spirituality of the younger generations.
Medvedev stressed on Tuesday that any interaction with clerics in schools or the Armed Forces should be voluntary.
Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko, who attended the meeting in Barvikha, said that only secular teachers would conduct classes on the history and culture of religion, which will require training for 40,000 people and hundreds of millions of rubles. The first classes on religion will start in several Russian regions in March, he said.
Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Tuesday that the Armed Forces would hire up to 250 clerics and would pay their salaries.
The church and the state are separated by the Constitution, raising questions about the legality of the Defense Ministry funding.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, praised Medvedev’s decision Tuesday.