MOSCOW - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church acknowledged Thursday that communism's legacy means religious education would still not be welcome in the country's public schools, but he expressed hope that Russian students could be taught about the country's main faith.
"We are not raising the question of introducing classes on the scripture and (Orthodox) religious teachings in high schools," Patriarch Alexy II said during a conference in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, in remarks shown on Russian television stations.
"We recognize and understand that 70 years have left their mark, and today the scriptures would not be accepted," Alexy said referring to the state-enforced atheism of Soviet times.
But he added that Russia's dominant church would like to see young Russians taught about "Orthodox culture or Orthodox ethics" in public school.
Russia's post-Soviet Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the Orthodox Church enjoys strong support from government officials. About two-thirds of Russia's 144 million people are Orthodox, but opinion polls indicate the Russian public is skeptical toward required religious education.
Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has expressed increasing fears about outside religions streaming in to Russia and seeking converts.
Tension has been highest recently between the Orthodox Church and Russia's small Roman Catholic community, numbering about 600,000 people. Orthodox leaders were infuriated earlier this year when the Vatican upgraded its structure in Russia to full-fledged dioceses.
"We are strongly against any unilateral actions, which are unbrotherly to the Russian Orthodox Church," Alexy said Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency.
At the Vatican, "they sometimes say that it is an internal affair," Alexy said. "It would have been an internal affair if it happened in a Catholic country. Yet such steps need to be coordinated in Russia, where most of the people are Orthodox."
Alexy spoke as Pope John Paul II wrapped up a visit to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country with only 120 Catholics. The pontiff has long expressed the desire to visit Russia to promote Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, but the conflict between the churches has kept the pontiff from realizing his dream.
Also Thursday, Alexy conferred high church awards on a group of scientists who had helped put together a new Orthodox Encyclopedia.
"No more confrontation exists between religion and science," he said. "We look on scientists now as our partners and allies, rather than opponents."