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View from here - Russia goes pick 'n' mix on faith

Colin Graham reports on a surprising decision to allow pupils to choose which religion they want to study

Colin Graham reports on a surprising decision to allow pupils to choose which religion they want to study

Images of tank processions and tightly-choreographed pageants commemorating this or that anniversary in Red Square have etched an assumption into the minds of many Westerners that Russia is a monolithic country populated by white-faced citizens sharing pretty much the same beliefs (Chechen Islamists notwithstanding).

On April 1, however, Russia's education and science ministry launched an experiment across 19 of the vast country's regions, which would see 10 to 11-year-old pupils studying religion in an unprecedented manner.

The scheme, entitled, the "Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics", will last for an initial two years and gives the children and their parents the chance to opt for a single module of study out of six. These are: Orthodox Christianity (Russia's main religion); Islam (the country's second largest faith, with some 23 million followers); Judaism; the religions of the world; Buddhism and secular ethics.

In some of the modules pupils are given the opportunity to focus on one religion to the exclusion of others, which might seem a little divisive, but the Government contends that it wants its innovation to foster "unity through diversity".

Some of the results produced by the options make for surprising reading. For instance, in the south-central city of Krasnoyarsk 7,244 pupils were given options: 4,249 of them wanted to learn about secular ethics, 1,180 the fundamentals of Orthodoxy, 1,690 world religious cultures, 96 Islamic culture, 15 Buddhism and 14 Judaism.

The south-western Stavropol region revealed a slightly different pattern of preferences, with most parents in favour of their kids learning about the Orthodox religion. In second and third places were secular ethics and Islam, followed by the other options.

With its new educational experiment - given its purposeful emphasis on "choice" - Moscow is showing that it has far more than just authoritarian strings to its bow. It is also clearly bent on acknowledging that religions such as Islam and Judaism are central to the cultural lifeblood of the nation. The strength of secularism, too, perhaps reveals a more democratic strain in civil society than is commonly recognised.

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