President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon,
I have received two appeals from the leaders of Russia's leading faiths which as a matter of fact I propose to discuss today.
In one of these appeals, you raise the issue of teaching courses in schools aimed at the spiritual and moral education of the younger generation, while the second refers to the creation of an army and navy chaplains institute in the Armed Forces.
These topics are not new. It has to be said that these subjects have been around for a long time. They deserve not only our special attention but also a definitive response on the part of the government to both these issues and of course to your proposals.
No doubt, relations between the government and religious organisations in the area of education and upbringing are extremely important. They affect the most significant issues in the shaping of world views, individuals' value systems, rules of conduct in society, including the ethical content of such rules, and most importantly the formation of the identity of the Russian Federation's citizens.
We have discussed these matters in meetings with you, and at the joint session of the State Council Presidium and the Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations in Tula in which you participated. We all certainly appreciate the tremendous spiritual and educational work that you are doing as leaders of our major traditional denominations.
So in general what would I like to say in response to your appeals? I have decided to support both of these initiatives. I am referring to the idea of teaching the fundamentals of religious culture and secular ethics in Russia's schools; I also think we should consider organising on an ongoing basis the work of chaplains from our traditional Russian faiths in our Armed Forces. I am ready to support both of these proposals.
Today I would like to discuss in detail the practical implementation of these proposals, but of course I would also like to point out what in any event I believe to be some key things.
First, in most of the Russian Federation's regions there is a long tradition of cooperation between local authorities and religious communities, including in the field of education. For them the teaching of the fundamentals of traditional religion is not some exotic new idea like it was in the early 1990s, but rather a full-fledged successful programme. This is simply true and it greatly facilitates our task.
In addition, on a related note, the Ministry of Defence has been cooperating for a long time with the major religious communities, and that experience must be taken into account when planning our future steps.
I will not overwhelm you with the details of what has been done in terms of extracurricular teaching by virtue of a cooperation agreement between our traditional religions and the Ministry of Defence. You know all about this.
The second crucial thing that I would like to say involves the legal background, the legal origins of this. If we look at Russia's Constitution, Article 14 stipulates that religious communities are separate from the state and equal before the law. In this sense, everyone is guaranteed freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, including the right to profess any religion or none at all – that is Article 28.
I think we should emphasise the absolute importance of adhering to these fundamental constitutional provisions at every stage in the implementation of our plans, which have been coordinated primarily with the representatives of religious denominations who have initiated this discussion. This means that every legislative act in this area will have to undergo public expert evaluation.
Of course I would like to draw to the attention of government agencies and the Presidential Executive Office that our decisions today, my decisions, affect the most sensitive spheres, which means that we need to practise openness, sensitivity, goodwill and patience in dealing with all of these issues.
Given these key considerations, how should we proceed with this? I think it's possible to conduct an experiment in various regions – at this point 18 regions are planned but of course this figure can be discussed – an experiment in the teaching of the fundamentals of religious culture. Students and their parents will have to choose the subject of study. What should this be?
Firstly it could be the fundamentals of Orthodox culture, the fundamentals of Muslim culture, the fundamentals of Judaism or Buddhism. That is to say on these matters students and their parents will have a choice. It may turn out that there are those who want to explore the diversity of Russia's religious life. For such students we could have a general course on the history of our country's traditional major faiths. And all of these questions can be put into one programme so that the same manuals may be used. Finally there's the third option. Those who have no specific religious beliefs, who have not chosen a faith, should have the right to study the secular basis of ethics. In this way we should be able to satisfy all those who have different perceptions of what needs to be taught, something consistent with students' views and of course consistent with their parents'.
It is important that for students and their parents the choice of such a programme be absolutely voluntary. Any coercion on this issue is not only illegal but will be absolutely counter-productive.
Secular teachers will be charged with these subjects, but of course in the preparation of teaching and learning aids we need to be guided by several considerations. The main consideration is simple: we must nurture upright, decent, tolerant, honest citizens who are interested in the world and who respect the views and beliefs of their fellow citizens. As a result of this work, as a result of this experiment, it would be possible to extend this system to the entire country, perhaps, for example, from 2012. We'll see how it goes, as they say.
Now so far as the Armed Forces are concerned: it is no secret that representatives of all nationalities defend our homeland, all of our districts, territories and regions — it has always been this way and it always will be. Among the soldiers and the commanders there are and always will be Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, followers of Judaism and other religions, and finally those who do not identify themselves with any religion, and atheists as well. All of them serve in the army and risk the most precious thing that any human being has, his or her life.
On the other hand, they all have the right to receive spiritual support from people close to them in accordance with their spiritual beliefs. This is also as it should be. Constitutional principles of equality, voluntariness and freedom of conscience must be respected with regard to all military personnel. And with regard to the duties of army and navy chaplains, first this would involve those deployed outside Russia, then, say, next year at the level of military regions, brigades, divisions and in institutions of higher education. I think in these matters we should be guided by real reasons, real knowledge of the ethnic-religious composition of units.
One possibility that we should perhaps discuss is that if more than ten percent of a brigade, division, or educational institution is composed of representatives of a given confession, then a chaplain of that denomination may be included in the staff of the relevant unit. This is ours to discuss and decide with you.
I also think that chaplains in the army and navy should remain civilians. This is probably normal.
Once again I would like to say that I support both of your appeals because I believe that their implementation will help strengthen the moral and spiritual foundations of our society, as well as strengthen the unity of our multiethnic and multireligious country.
There is another issue which is irrelevant to today's conversation, but is nevertheless related to education and which I cannot but address in concrete terms.
Not that long ago – although, in all seriousness, it was a decent time ago – we first put forward the idea of a special law on the establishment of small businesses under the aegis of budgetary institutions, including institutes and universities. I specifically dealt with this issue, repeatedly returned to it, and said that this should be done.
Unfortunately, I can say that because of the lack of coordination between the Cabinet, Presidential Executive Office and Federal Assembly, the bill was not passed at the last meeting of the Federation Council – it was rejected. But this is not our whim. This concerns young graduates in a difficult period of crisis; we must do all we can to make sure that the decisions we make help graduates who are completing their education and want to stay and work in institutions of higher education. For this reason I asked the leadership of the Federal Assembly to hold another extraordinary meeting, an additional session, and adopt the law as we agreed. I will sign this law and it will then be operational.
In and of itself, the idea of creating small businesses should be implemented as soon as possible. This is my instruction to the Cabinet and Presidential Executive Office. The issue of holding an additional session has been agreed with the leadership of the Federal Assembly. The heads of the relevant departments are present here and I will give them a separate instruction. This is beyond our agenda, but I simply could not refrain from mentioning it even in the presence of distinguished hierarchs.
Please, let us begin our discussion.