Introduction to teaching specifics of “Armenian Church History” subject at public schools of Armenia

Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, PhD


From 2002 a subject titled “Armenian Church History” was introduced into the public schools of Armenia and started to be taught for the pupils of the 5-11 years. Firstly, the subject was introduced as “History of religions”, then it changed into “Armenian Church history” as an elective course and from 2002 the subject became obligatory subject for all public schools in Armenia. The subject was introduced by Ministry of Education of Armenia but the whole supervision of the teaching process, elaboration of text-books, publication, and training of teachers is implemented by the Christian Education Center of Mother See Holy Etchmiadzin which is the official center of Armenian Apostolic Church. The transfer of secular functions from a State Institution to a religious organization has not ever happen within Armenian history and this kind of action was founded by the amendments in the Constitution in 2005 when the following section was added in the Constitution of Armenia: “The Church shall be separate from the state in the Republic of Armenia.

The Republic of Armenia recognizes the exceptional mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as the national Church, in the spiritual life, development of national culture and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia. Freedom of operation for all religious organizations in accordance with the law shall be guaranteed in the Republic of Armenia.
The relations of the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church may be regulated by the law” (Article 8.1). The law regulating the relationships between Armenian Apostolic Church and the Republic of Armenia gave many privileges to Armenian Apostolic Church in comparison to other religious organizations. Supervision of a subject taught at public schools by only one hegemonic religious organization raised many questions among the civil society members, international organizations and different monitoring groups. The activities of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the public space is conditioned by the sociopolitical situation of the country from one hand and by the unwillingness of the Government to counter the ambitions of the Church to regain its power from the other hand (Jödicke 2013 (a), p. 108).

The issue of the obligatory nature of the Armenian Church history subject was raised by United Nations for elimination the obligatory component of the subject not to violate the rights of religious minorities, people having different philosophical views (atheists, agnostics, etc.)1. This recommendation of UN raised harsh reaction and criticism by Ministry of Education of Armenia and Armenian Apostolic Church which they interpreted in their own way, i.e. UN is interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, the relationship of Church and State is regulated by the Constitution of Armenia and the UN documents has recommendatory nature and the Government may not follow them2. The official position of the Government of Armenia is that the introduction of the subject in public school is not a religious education itself but it is only teaching about religions. Legally the education in Armenia is secular and an intervention by any religious organization into the public school may be deemed as violation of secular principles of public school. Different forms of representation of religion exist among the society members in Armenia. “People might react “religiously” in one context and “non-religiously” in another. There may be pupils and parents who would support a cultural representation of religion in school while refusing a strictly religious identity in their life” (Ibid, p. 109).

The basic research question of the article is the teaching of “Armenian Church History” subject is a religious education or not, where is the border of secular and religious in this subject? Are there religious rituals or elements of rituals performed during the classes and how the identification of religious and nations affects on religious tolerance at schools? The Toledo Guiding principles shall be a good basis for measuring the borders of religious education and also the interviews with teachers, parents and officials from educational entities shall serve as a basis for qualitative research. For the purpose of this study several visits to the school s at cities and regions were made, meetings with school directors, instructors, officials, parents, representatives of religious organizations were held. International and national legal instruments, as well as different reports concerning the religious situation, religious education were used in this study.

Religious Education or Teaching about religions?

After the collapse of Soviet Union the three South Caucasian countries experienced almost the same challenges to their politics of religion. The collapse of economic ties, democratization processes, and conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, various traumas within societies had their impact on the politics of religion and relationships of religious organizations. Not only were the officials responsible for public schools, teachers but also scholars in religious studies challenged by a new multicultural and multireligious situation in the South Caucasian countries.

Seventy years of atheistic period had its indelible seal on the religious sphere of Armenia. Even after two decades later this may be seen in different public spaces and in public discourses. However, after becoming independent in 1991 there is a strong tendency of religious organizations to regain their place in public space. This is especially evident in the case of Armenian Apostolic Church which was always the hegemonic Church of Armenians and during the Soviet period this Church suffered the most. The other religious organizations in Armenia are comparatively newly penetrated from abroad and many of them belong to different Protestant/Pentecostal denominations. 

The revival of religion (Tomka 2011) in Armenia has its own specifics as traditionally, historically, theologically, geographically religious situation in Armenia and the functioning of Armenian Apostolic Church in particular differs from the experience of other post-Soviet countries (Curanovic´ 2013, 330-331). The religious sphere in Armenia did not pass the all steps and developments as the religious organizations and institutions in the West. The secularization process in Armenia was forced above in the form of scientific atheism which is not always proper to consider secularism. However, during the last decades Armenia became more integrated into international organizations as an independent actor and the religious sphere started to have the patterns of similarity as the processes taking place abroad. The religious activity in public spaces is not high though nominally the majority of population may announce themselves as religious. However, the religious institutions have much authority among the society members than the other institutions (Charles 2010, pp. 228-261). One of the basic theories is the theory of J.Casanova on the returning back of religion into public space. He founds his theory on the historical example of several countries such as Spain, Poland, Brazil, US (Casanova 1994). This theory is completely attributable to the new Armenian reality where Pentecostal Churches try to gain their own space and the traditional Churches, such as hegemonic Armenian Apostolic Church, try to regain their spaces, territories, believers and power lost during the Soviet period.

Due to the religious revival in the world it is becoming an interesting topic the religious education in different countries and the specifics of such education. The religious education in European schools is closely connected to the principle of secular education. In 44 countries out of 47 of Council of Europe is taught a subject of religious nature at public schools. In the 25 countries the religious education is obligatory though in several countries it has the obligatory participation has absolute nature (Finland, Greece, Sweden, Norway and Turkey), in other countries it had selective nature, or the opt-out right is applicable. These approaches for teaching subject with religious content decrease the possibility of clashes in the schools among the pupils belonging different religions and suppression of rights of religious minorities in the country. The experience of European countries on this matter shows that majority of them developed mechanisms to opt out or to have alternative for this subject which is one of the basic principles of democratic societies (Schreiner 2007, pp.10-11).

During the recent period have been made many attempts by scholars of religious studies to research the characteristic and specifics of religious education at schools (Jödicke 2013 (b); Jackson 2004; Schreiner 2000; Ziebertz 2003, Schreiner 2007; Broadbent 2002, Mitchell 1980, etc.). Some of the researches came to the conclusion that religious education systems are different in each country and has its own developments (Jödicke 2013, Introduction, p. 7). Other scientific researches tried to see the connection of theology and pedagogy in teaching about religion and came to the conclusion that “religious education shall be separated from Christian instruction” (Grimitt 1973) which otherwise is the separation of theology from pedagogy where the teaching should be “only about”. 

Another interesting aspect of the religious education is indoctrination when the beliefs and values are handed on as religious. “Indoctrination means the handing on of beliefs in such a way as to make it impossible or difficult for the individual to modify or abandon them later even if he has good reason for doing so. In other words it consists in teaching a subject in such a way as to produce closed minds and restricted sympathies” (Mitchell 1980, pp. 134-135). The teaching process should not be implemented by imposing any kind of values or value systems on the pupils but to give them knowledge and ability for critical thinking to choose their own philosophical or religious views independently. The pupils of school do not have the ability to analyze rationally and choose in such mater as it is religion or any philosophy which shall form his worldview and lead him/her in the further life. While excluding any indoctrination of religious education, the education should provide comparative knowledge on religions and philosophies which shall enable young people to construct their own religious identity rationally and objectively. The indoctrination of a subject taught at schools may bring to unexpected results and affect the pupils’ worldview in contradiction to their family or parents values, philosophies or worldviews (Toledo principles, p. ).

Many scholars conclude that religious education or subjects with religious educational content should have the aim to crest public good for the society and not be intended to create “good” for separate religious institution or clergy of any Church. If centuries ago the Christian education was deemed as to hand on Christian values which shall have regulatory functions for the society, in modern period and in pluralistic societies the values are mostly humanistic. The prevalence of religious ideas and values to humanistic ones may bring such collapses as one can see in Syria or in Iraq. However, it is arguable which model of pluralism or the form of humanism is applicable to any society and the religious education or values given by such education is incomparable with any kind of education (Ibid, p. 136).

B. Mitchell suggests an idealistic way to solve the contradiction between indoctrination of rational teaching, i.e. to hand on Christian beliefs from one hand and to teach some alternatives and give young generation to choose their own “philosophy”. He thinks that the coincidence of these two is possible by “teaching Christianity in such a way as to come to grips with the genuine intellectual difficulties in it, e.g. in its relation to sciences; and to draw out its moral and political implications”. The other way is “teaching about religions in such a way as to develop a genuine understanding of a least one religion, which would normally be Christianity, and taking its truth claims seriously (Ibid, pp. 138-139). 

Many civil society actors criticized the teaching of “Armenian Church history” subject for the “indoctrination” of the content of teaching. The representatives of Christian Education center mention that during the instruction of teachers they mention that the teaching of the subject should not be implemented in an indoctrinational way but the fact of the supervision by Armenian Apostolic Church raises a lot of suspects on this matter. In this matter there are distinct approaches by the Christian Education centre at Etchmiadzin which announces that the subject is taught without indoctrination or trying to impose any worldviews upon the pupils from one side and by teachers trained at the same center and they try to hand on some ideas and worldviews depending on their own understanding and tolerance level. 

The basic question for about Armenian Church history subject is the following: is it a religious education or not? The answer to this question depends on several interrelated issues: what is the curriculum for the subject, who implements the supervision of the subject, who are the teachers, what kind of training do they get, what are the differences between religious education and ethics considering the fact that ethics is included in the Armenian Church history subject, etc. The semantics of the term “religious education” is very ambiguous. As a generic term it can refer to all kind of education having knowledge about religions and it can refer to a teaching model having religious nature or character (Frank & Bochinger 2008, pp. 191-192). In this article the term religious education shall be used provisionally with its generalizing meaning as religious education as such (Religionsunterricht) does not exist at public schools in Armenia. Western scholars under the term religious education usually understand three different approaches: a) confessional education, b) interreligious education, c) Religionskunde (religious education in a non-religious way) (Ibid, p. 192). In its definition the Armenian model of religious education is mostly like to the Religionskunde though the violation of the principle of secularity by many teachers might be considered as a special Armenian model of religious education. In Armenian context we should not expect the existence of different curriculums or diversity of teaching styles, like in multiethnic Switzerland, Russia or Germany, because Armenia is mono-ethnic and there is not much differences between regions as between the cantons in Switzerland (Ibid, p. 195-196). Religionskune might not interfere with the pupils’ or their parents’ religious or philosophical convictions but rather to provide with sufficient information and knowledge to think and discuss about religions. There are several cases in Armenian schools when the representatives of religious minorities were offended because of the compulsory nature of the subject and absence of opt-out right which contradicts, by their opinion, to the religious freedom declared in the country. These kinds of objections are objective when they mention the worldview formation classes or teachings which not only contradict to the secular nature of the subject but also the international and local obligations taken by the Republic of Armenia.

1. UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Armenia, adopted by the Committee at its sixty-third session (27 May – 14 June 2013), CRC/C/ARM/CO/3-4, 8 July, 2013, F 46 (d).
2. The statement by Minister of Education of Armenia Armen Ashotyan on the UN recommendations: