MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 382: Orthodoxy in Georgia's Schools

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Fri Mar 16 15:42:22 2007


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 382, March 8, 2007

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE MARCH 8

ARMY ABUSE CLAIMS IN AZERBAIJAN Questions asked about whether bullying
in the Azerbaijani army prompted three soldiers to cross the front line.
By Jasur Mamedov in Baku

KARABAKH REBUILDS SCHOOLS Diaspora charities are helping in the
reconstruction of the education system. By Ashot Beglarian in Nigi 

TEEN GAMBLERS RACKING UP DEBTS The lure of easy money is tempting
Armenian youngsters into the capital's betting shops. By Karine Asatrian
in Yerevan 

GEORGIA: ORTHODOXY IN SCHOOLS Religious minorities say Orthodox creed is
given unfair advantage in schools. By Fati Mamiashvili in Tbilisi

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GEORGIA: ORTHODOXY IN SCHOOLS 

Religious minorities say Orthodox creed is given unfair advantage in
schools. 

By Fati Mamiashvili in Tbilisi

Muraz Mirzoyev, an ethnic Yezidi, was a first form pupil at the
Davitiani Georgian private school, when his father forbade him to attend
religion lessons after he found out that Christian studies was being
taught there and Orthodox rituals practiced at the school.

"This form of schooling discriminates against other nationalities," said
Muraz's father Agit Mirzoyev, who is also head of the Georgian Yezidi
Kurds' Union. "I don't want my son to come under the influence of some
other religion. The management of the school understood my decision."

Yezidis are a small minority in Georgia and practice their own faith.
Told not to attend classes where Christianity is being taught, Muraz
went home during religious studies lessons or waited for them to end in
an adjoining classroom.

"Muraz felt uncomfortable, because he could not understand what was
going on at the lessons while he wasn't there," said Mirzoyev. "This one
hour was enough to make him feel ill at ease."

Muraz is now nine years old and a fourth-form pupil. He still skips
lessons in the history of religion and his father does not allow him to
go on outings with his classmates. 

"I prefer him to stay at home instead of visiting Georgian cultural
monuments that are presented as symbols of the Christian religion," his
father said.

Religious education is becoming a contentious issue for minorities in
Georgia. According to a law on general education passed in April 2005,
religious studies is not a compulsory subject on the curriculum, which
means it is up to the schools themselves to decide whether to provide
lessons in Orthodoxy or not. 

The education ministry has no exact figures on the number of schools
teaching the subject in Georgia, where Orthodox Christians comprise
around 80 per cent of the population. The ministry's press office said
only that "most Georgian schools teach the history of religion".

IWPR telephoned ten schools in Tbilisi and found that all of them had
the subject in their curricula.

In its 2006 International Religious Freedom Report, the US Department of
State struck a note of concern, saying that in contradiction of
legislation passed in 2005, "Teachers often began most courses,
including mathematics and science, by leading the class in a recitation
of Orthodox prayers. Those students who did not participate were
sometimes punished."

The report said that Orthodox icons and religious pictures were often
hung in classrooms and some schools had chapels where students were
encouraged to pray. 

Bella Tsipuria, deputy minister of education and science, denied there
was a problem.

"No one is going to make anyone attend religion lessons," she said.
"Pupils have the discretion to decide whether to attend the lessons or
not."

However, language teacher Lamara Pashayeva told IWPR that those pupils
who missed religious studies lessons were suffering as a result. 

"One Yezidi boy who did not attend lessons on religion was often beaten
and bullied by his classmates," she said. 

"Unfortunately, his family won't make it public. I can only say that the
form-master asked me for help, because the religious studies teacher did
not resolve the conflict."

Arnold Stepanian, chief of the Multinational Georgia organisation which
defends minority rights, said his organisation had recorded up to 15
cases over the past two years where non-Georgian pupils had their rights
violated by classmates or religious studies teachers.

"During lessons, religious studies teachers called Muslims, Jews and
Kurds 'henchmen of the Devil'," said Stepanian. "Unfortunately, parents
often don't speak up."

"The trouble is that many parents do not know their rights, thinking
that it's normal for their children to have their rights violated for
the sake of Orthodoxy," said Beka Mindiashvili, an expert at the
Religious Tolerance Centre in the Georgian ombudsman's office, who
himself used to teach religious studies in a school. 

Tsipuria said her ministry had never heard of conflicts related to the
teaching of religion in schools.

"If there really is a conflict on religious grounds somewhere, this
violates the law on general education," said Tsipuria. "If these facts
are confirmed, the ministry's inspectors will respond to them."

However, the ombudsman's office said the education ministry had
overlooked an incident that attracted a lot of attention last year in
the town of Vale in Akhaltsikhe district, which has a large Catholic
population. 

"On April 13, 2006, the ombudsman's office received a complaint from
Catholic pupils in Vale's secondary school No.1, who accused their
teachers of religion, geography and Georgian language of a negative
attitude towards them," said a press release by the office. 

"The religious studies teacher hurt a Catholic schoolgirl's ear because
she had not made the sign of the cross the way Orthodox Christians do,"
said Mindiashvili.

Gocha Khitarishvili, the father of the girl, told IWPR that things
improved after the ombudsman's office intervened.

Levan Abashidze of the Georgian parliament's research department argues
that "when a school decides voluntarily to teach religious studies, the
subject becomes compulsory for all pupils of the school". 

"Schools should teach a history of various religions, while most of the
textbooks the schools use nowadays are trying to convert people to
Orthodoxy," said Abashidze.

Last year, the non-government Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy
and Development, CIPPD, held a series of workshops for teachers on how
religion should be taught in schools. 

"It turned out that several of the teachers were intolerant towards
people of other faiths," said Bella Beradze of CIPDD. "The participants
themselves owned up to this."

Evidence from Georgian schools confirms this.

Catholic priest Father Zurab Kikachishvili cited a case in which a
teacher of religious studies in a Gori school made an entire class,
including two Catholic pupils, receive communion according to the
Orthodox Christian rite.

Marta Samatashvili, who teaches religious studies in secondary school
No. 62 in Tbilisi, said, "Religion should be taught very carefully." She
said that ethnic Georgian Orthodox Christians and Muslim Azerbaijanis
and Kists in her classes studied the history of different religions and
not just Orthodoxy.

"Each of us is free to choose his faith," she said. "The Orthodox
religion forbids violence against other religions."

Lela Jejelava, coordinator of the inter-religious council of the
Georgian Patriarchate, said people who belonged to traditional faith
groups could ask to be taught their religion in schools, but there was
no legal requirement for this to happen.

Jejelava said the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church,
and the Jewish and Muslim communities had all refused to register as
legal entities because "they don't want to exist as a firm or
foundation". 

She said teaching of other religions in schools would be out of the
question until these faiths obtained a legal status - leaving the
Georgian Orthodox Church in a dominant position in Georgia's schools. 

Fati Mamiashvili is a freelance journalist working in Tbilisi.

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