Schoolboy Takes Unorthodox Stand

Moscow, Russia - David Perov's first day of school was almost his last.

The 7-year-old boy was punched, kicked and taunted by other first graders after he refused to participate in an Orthodox service to open the school year, he and his parents said.

Prosecutors have determined that Voronezh School No. 3 violated the boy's religious rights by holding the service, and his parents are now suing the public school in court.

"We just want to prevent something like this from happening to another child," Alexei Perov, the boy's father and pastor of the local Community of Christ church, said in a telephone interview.

David Perov's story exposes a darker side to the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has seen a revival under President Vladimir Putin, a professed believer. Although the Constitution envisions the separation of church and state, Orthodoxy has made huge inroads since the Soviet collapse, with Putin attending services with church leaders, priests being called to bless factories, airplanes and even power turbines, and lessons on church culture being taught in some public schools.

The church says it has public support for its activities. Indeed, 75 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, even though only 10 percent of them attend church and observe Orthodox traditions, according to a recent survey by state-controlled VTsIOM.

For many people, being Orthodox is akin to being Russian, said Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer and head of the Slavic Legal Center, an interfaith organization founded in 1992 to help safeguard the rights of believers in the former Soviet Union.

David Perov's troubles started when a local Orthodox priest, Alexander Muraviyev, arrived to conduct the service for the first graders on Sept. 3.

The boy did not know how to behave during the service, said Alexei Perov, who is raising his son in the Community of Christ, a church with headquarters in Independence, Missouri, that claims 250,000 members worldwide and traces its roots back to Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

The first graders' Orthodox service included prayers and incense burning while the children crossed themselves, said the school's principal, Tatyana Zhukova. At the end, the children were given a cross to kiss, she said.

"I did not want to kiss the cross," David Perov said by telephone. He said several boys hit him and called him "fanatic" in a playroom after the service. "The teacher saw that they were beating me but said nothing," he said.

When boy's mother, Galina Perova, came to pick him up, she found him hiding in the bathroom, she said. "I asked the teacher what had happened, but she told me, 'Nothing,'" she said. Back at home, her son tearfully told her that he would never go to school again.

The parents complained to the local prosecutor's office, and prosecutors agreed that the school had broken two laws, on religious freedom and education, prosecutor Alexander Bykanov wrote in an official letter to Alexei Perov on Oct. 8.

Zhukova, the principal, said the school had done nothing wrong. "We did receive a note from the prosecutor's office, but we deny that anything bad was done to the child," she said. "We did not know that the boy was of a different faith."

Muraviyev, the priest, said by telephone that he had not known that a non-Orthodox boy was in the class. Later in the interview, though, he acknowledged that he had been told about the boy when he arrived at the school that day. His son was among the first graders.

Asked about David Perov being abused by his classmates, he said, "Nothing of the sort happened." Muraviyev said he had been invited to conduct the service by the teacher and parents.

Voronezh region's top education official, Georgy Zvorygin, said in a letter to Alexei Perov on Sept. 20 that the decision to hold the service had been made at a parents' meeting.

Zvorygin, like education officials in several other regions, has a special arrangement with the Orthodox Church, under which many schools offer a class titled "The Foundation of Orthodox Culture." The classes -- which the church insists teaches only culture, not doctrine -- are permitted under a law that allows each region to set its own policy on whether religious classes are taught in their schools. A total of 12 regions now offer "The Foundation of Orthodox Culture" class, according to a Public Chamber survey.

Human rights activists, however, warn that the class can encourage xenophobia. "It was just a bad idea to impose these lessons in a region where 17 different nationalities live," said Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer with Chernozemiye, a human rights organization in Voronezh, who is advising the Perovs.

The State Duma is considering an amendment to close the legal loophole through which the Orthodox classes were introduced. Facing opposition from the church, however, Duma deputies have watered down the amendment to allow individual schools to determine their own curriculum by "taking into account regional or national particularities, the type of school, educational requirements and students' requests," said Stepan Medvedko, an adviser to the Duma's Public and Religious Organizations Committee.

Orthodox activists, meanwhile, have collected more than 100,000 signatures in favor of requiring all schoolchildren to take Orthodox classes, said Vadim Kvyatkovsky, the Moscow leader of a church youth organization.

Kvyatkovsky, speaking to reporters earlier this month, said the petition aimed to influence the authorities and "to show the opinion of the majority" after 10 prominent academics sent an open letter to President Vladimir Putin criticizing the Orthodox class in public schools and the "growing clericalization" of society.

The church's main spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, said that dropping the class would violate the rights of Orthodox children. "We have a majority of Orthodox children in this country, and we should respect their rights," Chaplin said by telephone. "In Belgorod, for instance, there are thousands of children who study Orthodox culture at school and there is no problem. As far as I know, only about 60 children have refused to attend these lessons."

Belgorod has more schools offering the Orthodox class than any other region, creating such an outcry that Putin addressed the issue during a visit there in September. "We have to find a form acceptable for all of society," Putin said. He stopped short of calling for the classes to be scaled back.

The head of the federal ombudsman's religious freedom office, Mikhail Odintsov, said he had been flooded with letters from parents complaining about their children being forced to take Orthodox classes. "The class should not be compulsory because that would be a violation of the law," he said at a news conference on Oct. 4, Interfax reported.

A Voronezh court is now being asked to award damages to David Perov for his ordeal. Alexei Perov filed a lawsuit seeking 41,000 rubles ($1,640) from School No. 3 this month. "This is not a considerable amount, but those found guilty in the case would be punished financially at least," said Gnezdilova, the lawyer.

The school principal accused David Perov's parents of exaggerating the incident and accused the Community of Christ of stirring up trouble. "I guess that his parents got a lot of money from their American religious sponsors to start this scandal," Zhukova said.

A senior Community of Christ official said the only money sent to Alexei Perov was "a very small monthly amount from the church for his expenses as pastor." "Neither the Community of Christ nor any of our ministers have ever suggested to Alexis anything about this case," said Leonard Young, supervising minister of the Community of Christ's Europe church. "We are a church that promotes peace, reconciliation and cultural understanding and certainly would not seek to cause any problems in [Voronezh]."

Chaplin, the Orthodox church spokesman, said he stood by the school. "The teachers said nothing wrong was done to the boy, and I believe them," he said. "It is only the boy's father who says his son was beaten. I don't think the children would beat another child immediately after the service."

David Perov eventually returned to School No. 3, although he was placed in a class with a different teacher. He said he liked his studies, but that he was afraid that the priest might come back one day.