January 14, 2003
Dispute over Christian textbook goes to court
By Viktoria Malyutina
A Moscow court has ordered prosecutors to probe the textbook 'The Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture', written by Alla Borodina, with the aim of establishing whether or not the book ignites inter-religious hatred. And in a further twist to the story, the plaintiffs in the case have themselves been accused of intolerance by an Orthodox priest and a mufti.
A Moscow court has ruled that prosecutors' earlier refusals to launch criminal proceedings into the publishing of the textbook were unsubstantiated. The ruling was passed by Judge Irina Akkuratova, after she examined a suit filed by the human rights group For Human Rights, whose activists claim that Borodina's textbook encourages inter-ethnic enmity.
The all-Russian movement For Human Rights filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office in June 2002 after the Pokrov publishing house published 10,000 copies of the textbook on Orthodoxy for comprehensive schools, lyceums and grammar schools. The textbook was approved and recommended by the Coordination Council for interaction between the Education Ministry and the Moscow patriarchate.
But, according to the head of the human rights group Lev Ponomaryov, who filed the complaint, in actual fact the textbook is aimed ''at clerical propaganda'' and ''gravely violates the principles of a secular state''.
''They tell us that the textbook is culturological,'' the group's spokesman Yevgeniy Ikhlov told Gazeta.Ru. ''But page 112 contains the anti-democratic principle of the collective guilt of the people, and on page 114 schoolchildren are asked to answer an anti-Semitic question on why the Jews crucified Christ and cannot accept the kingdom of heaven.''
The human rights activists also found attacks on other religions in the book. To prove their case the plaintiffs attached to their suit an assessment from religion experts from the Russian State University of Humanities (RGGU), confirming that the textbook promotes religious and inter-ethnic hatred.
The Prosecutor General's Office forwarded the activists' complaint to the Ostankino prosecutor's office (northeastern Moscow), but on September 4, 2002 a district prosecutor refused to launch an investigation into the publishing of the book. The plaintiffs then appealed the prosecutor's decision in the Meshchansky court.
After examining the case the court ruled that the prosecutor's refusal to launch proceedings was ''unlawful and unfounded''. At the same time, the court rejected other requests from the human rights group. In particular, Lev Ponomaryov had demanded that the book be seized from schools. The court also said it had no authority to order the Press Ministry to conduct an expert examination of the book.
Now the author, the publishers and the distributors of the controversial book may face imprisonment -- in compliance with the court order the prosecutors will have to launch criminal proceedings against them under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code that stipulates punishment for igniting inter-ethnic enmity. At the same time, the group's spokesman explained that this is not the goal that the human rights activists are pursuing -- their main objective is to punish the Education Ministry's officials for violating the principles of a secular state.
The representatives of the human rights movement believe there are now 3 possible scenarios under which the case will proceed. Firstly, the prosecutors may file an appeal against the verdict. ''Then we will meet at the Moscow City Court,'' Ikhlov said. Secondly, the case may be dropped due to a lack of evidence, or finally, the prosecutors may order their own expert examination, and then once again refuse to launch criminal proceedings.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which maintains that the book incites no enmity, has so far stayed out of the scandal.
''We would like to hope that the court will look into the problem and listen to the opinions of both sides,'' the deputy chief spokesman of the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church Vsevolod Chaplin told Gazeta.Ru, adding that the position of the plaintiffs ''is surprising'', since any religion ''has the right to assess other religions from its standpoint, and, in line with the international law, may claim verity and oneness''. The plaintiffs themselves, according to Chaplin, could be accused of intolerance against Orthodoxy.
The head of the Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Non-traditional Religions Oleg Stenyayev and the deputy Supreme Mufti of Russia Farid Salman have in fact already filed such a claim against the human rights activists. The Orthodox priest Stenyayev and the chief mufti of Tatarstan Salman claim that inter-religious dissent is being sown by the human rights activists themselves.
According to Yevgeniy Ikhlov, his group considers their move as ''an alliance of supporters of medieval mentality against the secular state''. Nonetheless, the human rights activists are confident of victory and hope that the case will evoke a wide public response.