GEORGIA: Patriarchate Monopoly On State Religious Education

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 2 October 2001

Georgia's main government official in charge of religious issues, Tamaz Papuashvili, denies that the Orthodox Patriarchate has a monopoly on state religious education. 'The Patriarchate may recommend a religious education programme,' he told Keston News Service in Tbilisi on 20 September, 'but the Ministry of Education doesn't just introduce what the Patriarchate wants.' However, Papuashvili appeared alone in this view out of those Keston spoke to on this subject in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

The Orthodox Patriarchate is already among the bodies with which the Ministry of Education develops syllabuses for state schools, according to the republic's June 1999 Law on Education (Article 2). The as yet unsigned spring 2001 draft constitutional agreement, or concordat, between the state and the Orthodox Church goes further in giving the Patriarchate sole initiative for such programmes. 'The state approves syllabuses on the subject of Orthodox belief,' it asserts, 'following their presentation by the Church.'

On 18 September Levan Ramishvili, the director of the Liberty Institute, a human rights NGO, said that the Ministry of Education introduced a textbook into state schools for the curriculum subject 'Religion and Culture' in 1998. Although, in Ramishvili's view, the textbook was 'a bit pro-Orthodox', a group called the Committee of Orthodox Parents 'thought it wasn't Orthodox enough and took the Ministry to court.' The textbook was subsequently withdrawn.

Speaking to Keston on 20 September, Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili) of Sukhumi and Abkhazia also confirmed that the Patriarchate has complete endorsement of state religious education programmes. Since the textbook currently in use in state schools for the subject 'Religion and Culture' incorrectly formulates some specifically Orthodox dogmatic elements, he said (although he was unable to specify precisely which), a new religious studies programme would soon be introduced.

According to Nugzar Kenia, the headmaster of St. Nino's state school in central Tbilisi, the textbook currently in use for 'Religion and Culture' does teach the basis of Christian culture - but his school has adopted its 'own approach'. Located directly beside a popular traditionalist Orthodox parish church (there is no dividing wall or fence), Kenia explained to Keston on 20 September that a priest from the parish teaches the basics of Orthodoxy to the school's younger classes, while general religious studies are taught from the seventh class (approximately 14 years) onwards by a secular religious studies teacher. 'We think that a person ought to get to know their own religion thoroughly first,' he explained, 'and then find out about others in order to respect them.'

According to Kenia, the syllabus devised by the religious studies teacher for each year is the product of consultation and agreement with the parish church. The many church-going parents of the school's 1,700 pupils from all over Tbilisi are pleased with the arrangement, he told Keston, which had only become possible in the recent period 'when we have been able to act freely'. Keston observed many unsupervised pupils crossing themselves as they passed the church on their way into school.

Although this situation appears to have long been taking shape, Papuashvili responded to Keston's questions regarding religious education only with further questions, as if the matter were for future consideration. 'What role will the Patriarchate play in education?' he asked. 'Who will supply textbooks, teachers? Will there be parish schools or will Orthodox instruction be optional? A person saying they're Orthodox could teach and a priest could disagree with them - there is the question of approval...' He was unable even to say what the most likely form of religious education in state schools would be in the light of the impending concordat.

Automatic preference for Orthodox religious education would certainly affect the Catholic Church, the bishop's secretary Georgi Tskhomelidze acknowledged on 21 September. Currently, he said, his Church is able to provide Catholic instruction only in exclusively - rather than majority - Catholic classes. On 19 September Fr Gela Aroshvili of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, which broke away from the mainstream Georgian Orthodox Church after demanding the latter's withdrawal from the World Council of Churches, expressed resentment at the Patriarchate's growing monopoly in state religious education: 'I don't want my children to learn what the Patriarchate teaches.' Fr Aroshvili maintained that alternative Orthodox were the main ones to suffer as a result of the Patriarchate's de facto control over the content of specifically Orthodox programmes: 'Sects don't publish Orthodox literature or teach in Orthodox schools,' he said. (END)