Mandatory Christian studies in Ukraine irk Jewish leaders


KIEV, Ukraine — Jewish leaders in Ukraine are criticizing a decision to introduce Christian ethics studies into the nation’s public school curriculum.

Ukraine’s Education and Science Ministry last month made ethics a mandatory subject starting this school year, which begins Sept. 1. The ministry said the move is an attempt to teach middle-school students spiritual and moral values.

According to the ministry, students will choose one of three tracks: Christian ethics, philosophical ethics or the foundation of religious ethics. The last means that any major faith may propose a course on its own ethics.

Jewish leaders have yet to propose an alternative for Jewish students — and say it would be better if no religious ethics were taught at public schools.

“A chance to decide between the three options is better than just having one option, Christian ethics,” said Josef Zissels, head of the Ukrainian Va’ad, a Jewish umbrella organization.

But “how it will be implemented in reality” is another matter entirely, he said, adding that the choice may exist only as a formality and students may not be offered real alternatives to studying Christian ethics.

Moreover, Zissels and other Jewish leaders said the new subject may open school doors to religious extremists, especially since there are no qualified teachers or textbooks for the new course.

President Victor Yuschenko, who is Christian Orthodox, backed the idea in a June 2005 meeting with religious leaders, but his office said at the time that the curriculum must “satisfy all Ukrainians.”

The majority of Ukrainians apparently are not happy with the move: According to the Razumkov Center, a polling firm, only 42 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of religious studies being taught at public schools.

“That’s why having alternative subjects will be more effective,” said Aleksandr Sagan, a Jewish adviser in the Yuschenko administration.

According to Sagan, Christian ethics already are being taught at state schools in western Ukraine, but many Jews believe the subject is too controversial and should be made optional.

Others suggest that schools be allowed to teach the common basics of all monotheistic religions, such as the Ten Commandments, but should avoid giving the dominant status to any one faith.

“It would be better if there is no teaching of any of these subjects,” said Igor Kuperberg, leader of the Ukrainian chapter of the Magen League, a Jewish anti-missionary group.

Kuperberg believes the new subject will ostracize Jewish students in non-Jewish state schools, and shouldn’t be allowed at any rate “because in Ukraine the church is separated from the state,” he said.

Ukraine is predominantly Christian Orthodox, with some 300,000 Jews and a sizable indigenous Muslim community.

Jewish and Muslim communities may submit their own curricula on the ethical foundations of their faiths to be used as an alternative to the Christianity-based subject.

But so far the ministry has approved only the curriculum of the Basics of Christian Ethics for fifth and sixth graders. Moreover, there is little indication that any of the Jewish groups are working on a comparable Jewish course.

Christian Ethics in Christian Culture will become a mandatory subject for grades one through four in Kiev public schools in September 2007.

Vitaly Zhuravsky, Kiev’s deputy mayor, said that some children — such as atheists, Orthodox Jews and Muslims — may be excused from taking the class.

But Zhuravsky said he was sure “the majority of the students will take this subject because Ukraine is a Christian country.”

Jewish leaders say faith-based studies will create tension for Jewish students at state schools.

“It is very important to tell children about the existence of God and teach them moral obligations,” said Rabbi Azriel Haikin, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. “But there will be children from different minorities in state schools, and they will be put in a difficult situation.”