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Religious Studies Innovation for Schools

For the first time, Kyrgyzstan’s secular educational system is going to teach children about religion.
The education ministry and the government’s religious affairs agency are designing the new course, which will enter the national curriculum in 2010.

Kyrgyzstan has two main faiths, Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, but the school subject will be wider in focus – its title is History of World Religions.

Even this is quite a break for a system that has until now kept faith matters out of the classroom, and the authorities have been looking at other countries that have introduced analogous school courses. Turkey is seen as offering a useful model.

According to Kanybek Osmonaliev , who heads the religious affairs agency, the authorities are aware of the sensitivities. Russia, for example, decided to teach children the history of the majority group’s religion, Orthodoxy, sparking legal action by Muslim and Buddhist groups.

Sardar Birmanov, an expert in this area, says the public in Kyrgyzstan is generally wary of Islam – and he blames the media. “The media follow the world fashion, and try to show that we too have a very serious problem with extremism,” he said.

The plan is to make the new course a history subject, so that teachers with that specialisation can retrain easily.

One history teacher, Baktygul Balykbaeva, is ready to go. She used to run a club where she taught her class about different religions, before the school authorities stopped her, fearing she might point them towards one particular faith. On the contrary, she says, “Children are targeted by propaganda, so I decided to broaden their understanding of religion.”