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Preaching or Teaching?
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 23 Feb.'18 / 10:16
Otto Kobakhidze

Patriarchate of Georgia. Photo: Eana Korbezashvili/Civil.ge

Georgia debates teaching religion at school

The ways of the lord are impenetrable. Rather than spur the government into action to prevent bullying in schools, the fate of two underage schoolboys, stabbed to death by their peers in downtown Tbilisi in December 2017, brought about discussions on reinstating religious education at schools.

The aging leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II sees the direct connection “…we should pay attention to upbringing, especially spiritual upbringing [of children]. Probably our government should think about this, there must be the history of religion and issues of spirituality [taught] in schools.”

When Patriarch Ilia II - Georgia’s revered religious leader and country’s most trusted man by all polls during the past decades - speaks, Georgia’s government takes notice. The newly appointed Minister for Education and Science Mikheil Chkhenkeli has walked the trodden path supporting the initiative enthusiastically. “I think history of religion must be in every school as an elective course and we are heading this way,” Chkhenkeli said.

Human rights activists think the constitutional principles of laicity are at stake. Tamta Mikeladze of EMC, a Tbilisi-based human rights NGO, says “it is safe to say in our country incumbent government is deeply intertwined with the Georgian Orthodox Church… The Church’s influence over the Ministry of Education is rising.”

Schools and Religion 

This is not the first time religious education is considered for schools. Even as Georgia regained its independence in 1991, classes of “the History and Culture of Religion” were introduced into the classrooms and taught to pupils aged 8 to 12 until 2005. Despite its title suggesting social science tilt, the classes were often (although not always) taught by the Orthodox Christian priests and almost in all cases focused overwhelmingly on Orthodox Christianity as means of patriotic education - and religious indoctrination.

Did this experiment have positive impact on civic peace and tolerance that the Patriarch seems to expect?  Does not seem so. The 2002 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) documented “repeated acts of violence and harassment against members of religious minorities in Georgia.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists and Evangelical Christians were said to be the most frequent targets of violence. Revaz Apkhazava, executive director of the International Institute for Education Policy, Planning and Management (EPPM), suggests the causality goes the other way from what the Church officials suggest: “we had religious education and it caused serious problems,” he told journalists.

Since 2005, the new Law of Georgia on General Education declared that schools needed to abide by the principles of religious neutrality and secularism. The course on religion was removed from the curriculum, with a proviso that teaching about religions was integrated into various courses of Georgian language and literature, history, arts and other disciplines.

But Mikeladze tells us, that despite the formal line, “in many schools you can still see that the religion course is taught, but nobody is aware of how legal that is, or what the course curriculum is… [through such courses] the Orthodox Patriarchate and priests exercise influence over pupils and teachers, [which is] expressed in blessings, [pupils] participating in religious ceremonies, etc.”

Civic vs. Religious Studies?

Until recently, the Ministry of Education and Science seemed set on its course to streamline teaching about religions throughout the wider social sciences curricula. Steps were made to further formalize the changes made since 2005. In 2014, the Ministry said the new course “Society and I” would include a component of teaching about religions. This was falling within a general trend of deepening the social sciences and civics curricula - “Society and I” would be taught for 3rd and 4th graders (9-10 years old), “Our Georgia” for 5th and 6th graders (11-12 years) and Civic Education to 7th to 10th graders (13 to 16). 

Yet, Minister Chkhenkeli has changed the course. The Ministry official Mariam Chikobava told civil society representatives in a roundtable organized on this issue, that “the History of Religion(s)” would be introduced as an elective course, starting at the secondary education level and spanning several years. She stressed the preparations were starting and it would take some time till the first textbooks and formal curricula saw the light.

Ms. Chikobava claimed ignorance was the cause of religious violence and fanaticism, while the new course would help Georgian pupils embrace the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious heritage. Even if we grant the argument, this does not explain why the policy of streamlining knowledge about religions into the civics curricula must be changed for a stand-alone course. The National Curriculum already states that respect of the rights of the others, as well as appreciation of the cultural diversity are one of the key competences the pupils should attain. Did the existing civic education course fail to meet this objective?  Did the Ministry have sufficient evidentiary basis to gauge the impact of the current policy? These questions remain without an answer.

The choice of religions to be covered by the prospective stand-alone course is another worry. The education ministry says “traditional religions” would be covered. In Georgia’s historical and political context these include the Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches, Islam and Judaism. Smaller religious groupings – which often are the targets of religious intolerance – such as Baptists, Evangelical Christians and others will be excluded, marginalizing them even further.

Who Will Teach?

Both supporters and opponents of the prospective subject agree the lack of qualified teachers is a serious concern that might undermine the subject. Ms. Chikobava said her Ministry would consider retraining the teachers with humanities background to teach the new course. Theologian Beka Mindiashvili, however, expressed skepticism. “Large proportion of teachers has failed to pass basic competency tests in their own fields…How can they teach religions? Teaching about religions requires fundamental education. This takes years and cannot be achieved by simple re-training,” Mindiashvili quipped.

Mindiashvili also noted there were no high quality bachelor degrees awarded in Georgia in field of theology/religious studies. “Unless you have [dogmatically] neutral teaching of religion and theology [at BA level], it will be impossible to seriously consider this issue [of establishing a stand-alone curriculum]. I cannot imagine geography or literature teachers teaching religion,” he added.

Tamta Mikeladze agreed: “teachers do not have sufficient knowledge to talk about religions objectively, in a neutral and academic manner … even the subjects that should be bringing academic knowledge [like history or geography] are full of notions of religious fanaticism and ethno-religious sentimentality.” Having a separate class would change this, and would actually might make things worse, according to Mikeladze.

Then, there is the question of financial resources. Shalva Tabatadze, who holds a doctorate in education policy and works actively to contribute to Georgia’s education system reforms, said a stand-alone subject requires more teachers than the current, streamlined approach. It is unclear where would these resources come from.

Asking the Right Question

EMC study of 2014 shows religious difference is one of the important sources of marginalization, physical and psychological bullying of non-Orthodox students at schools. According to this study, the general environment towards religious minorities or non-religious schoolchildren is hostile, often forcing pupils to hide their religious beliefs and affiliations.

“There is a problem of priorities in the Ministry of Education. Instead of dealing with systemic problems that would prevent violence, they brought this initiative to the table” - Mikeladze told us - “teaching history of religion only, that will be empty from ethics in its essence, will not have any positive effect [on reducing violence]. The state should rather fight the structural problems.”

So far, the political leadership seems to tread the line suggested by the church.

Prime-Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili stated he fully shares the spirit of Patriarch’s speech about “spiritual upbringing” of schoolchildren. He said church and school connection should be strengthened. This follows on PM Kvirikashvili’s controversial claim last year, that the Orthodox Church and the Georgian State are so intertwined that “secularism in its classic form has no place in Georgia.”

To what degree will the new school subject of history of religions will reflect and celebrate Georgia’s religious diversity, remains hard to say. One thing is clear, however - While the government and the schools do not believe in secularism, teaching religious tolerance will remain a hard task.

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