Russian Orthodox patriarch blasts teaching Darwin in schools

Moscow, Russia - Imposing on schoolchildren the theory that humans descended from apes is unacceptable, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church said Monday.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the church has campaigned for the right to teach the basics of the Orthodox faith in public schools as a challenge to Darwin's theory of evolution, which was official dogma in Soviet times.

The issue has had particular resonance after schoolgirl Mariya Shraiber and her father filed a lawsuit demanding that Darwinism be stripped of its dominant position in the Russian school curriculum, calling its teaching to the exclusion of other theories a gross violation of the freedom of choice.

"Teaching the biblical theory of the world's creation will not harm students. If people choose to believe that they descended from apes, let them, but without imposing their opinions on others," Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia told an educational conference in the Kremlin, which was attended by government and military officials, public and cultural figures and spiritual leaders from Russia and former Soviet republics.

Alexy II said it was important not only to respect the rights of minorities, but those of the Orthodox majority as well, whose share the Church put at 90% of the total population throughout Russia, and whose children "should know the basics of their religion."

"If introduced, the subject will not be in breach of the principle of secularism fixed in the Constitution," he said, adding that teaching the basics of Orthodoxy would prevent the ideas of nationalism and extremism from taking root at school.

The calls by Orthodox leaders for a course on the history of Christianity, whether optional or mandatory, to be included in school curriculums has met with opposition from leaders of other faiths practiced in Russia, who say a course on the history of all religions should be introduced.

Advocates of a secular society have protested the introduction of such a course in schools at all, saying that even if students were interested and it was introduced, it would have to be taught by secular professors and be optional rather than mandatory.