Teachers of “Armenian Church History” subject at public schools of Armenia

Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, PhD


Who are the teachers of “Armenian Church History subject”?

From 2002 a subject called “Armenian Church history” was introduced into the public schools of Armenia as an obligatory subject. The introduction of the subject was not a well-prepared in the sense of teaching methodology and educational polices and it became a big challenge not only for Armenian Apostolic Church but also for the Government of Armenia. Formally the government is responsible for preparation of teachers, subject curriculum, textbooks, teaching methodologies, etc., but in reality all this functions were transferred to Armenian Apostolic Church without any functions transfer agreement or public announcement. However such kind of transfer of power by the Government to a religious organization was unprecedented and raised many questions among civil society actors, lawyers, politicians, representatives of religious minorities and other interested parties. 

Just after the introduction of the subject the officials faced the basic problem: who shall teach this subject? One of the first answers was the graduated students from Yerevan State University, Faculty of Theology shall undertake this process but very few of former students express willingness to work at schools. Christian Education center at Etchmiadzin, which was responsible for all matters connected to the subject, was also not ready for such challenge. The center organized trainings for teachers of the subject and many pedagogues with different specializations took the offered short trainings and started to teach at public schools. Some teachers could not get license from the Center being suspected to be “sectarian” or “atheist”. It was clear that these teachers could not provide relevant education on religions or they will teach the subject by indoctrination of the teaching material. This became evident after some qualitative researches in the public schools of Armenia (Danielyan 2012) and after my observations at the some public schools where I was present as the advisor to interns for the “Armenian Church history” subject. Many of the teachers could not get the basic goal of the subject and they just “multiplied” the information they had as their experience. Most of such information was not based on the academic principles and many of the examples brought did not have any scholarly basis. Some of them taught the subject by indoctrination and even they did propaganda of hatred speech against religious minorities as “they spread hostility among our nation, they collapse our national identity and they impede the integration of our nation as they refuse to serve to our country”1

After the introduction of the subject for some years the training course provided by Armenian Apostolic Church was obligatory for teaching in the schools. These courses could not provide comprehensive education and even training for the teachers but they played mostly filtering role for the representatives of other confessions. Teachers belonging to any other religious groups were not issues the certificate to teach the Armenian Church history at the schools. On February 12, 2012 the Minister of Education Armen Ashotyan at the presence of the head of Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II at the village of Oshakan announced the following: “We have an agreement that starting from this year the teachers teaching the “History of Armenian Church” at public schools shall enjoy the right to work at schools only after the permission given by the Mother See Holy Etchmiadzin. The teachers shall be trained at Holy See”2. The study of the teaching supervision of the subject showed that the Ministry of Education does not interfere into the selection, of the teachers and their supervision (Danielyan 2012, p. 45). At the same meeting the Catholicos Garegin II interpreted the process of teaching the subject at public schools as a mean to enhance the authority of Armenian Church among the population: ‘The activities of the clergy brought to the diminishing of the active work of sectarians”3. Considering the fact that during the selection of teachers their religious views are taken into account and the announcement of Catholicos during such meeting, it may be concluded that the teacher are considered as potential fighters against religious minorities or “sectarians”. 

The role of the teachers should be: to teach about world religions by providing the diverse picture of the world; to introduce the pupils with the Armenian Church history, traditions, celebrations; to give comprehensive understanding and knowledge on the role of religion and religious institutions within the society; to provide knowledge on the role of Armenian Church within the history of Armenia and its contemporary role in Armenia and in Diaspora; to teach knowledge on different religions which shall promote the students to evaluate and compare different world traditions of religions. The teachers were trained not to teach the classes through indoctrination but many of them could not understand this methodology and started to teach about absolute role of Armenian Church in the history of Armenian nation and criticize any religion other than Armenian Church. This brought to the opposite results when instead of promoting toleration to other religions and pluralistic ideas, the wrong teaching methods raise hatred among pupils an intolerant towards the “other”. In Armenian society where the level of intolerance is high, the teachers might fight against cultural differences, religious intolerance and create the space where young people may effectively face the future challenges to be faced within their society and abroad.

After the first period of recruitment of teachers the training courses provided by the Christian Education center became non obligatory. Many of the graduates of Faculty of Theology, Yerevan State University started to teach at various public schools of Armenia and filled the gap existed before. However, the practice of teaching the Armenian Church history by the teachers of other subjects is still a big challenge for the education system of Armenia. Taking into account the subtle character of the subject, the teachers of this subject are much vulnerable and fall under the criticism much often. The head of the Christian Education Center archimandrite Vardan Navasardyan interprets their functions at the schools: “We retain the right to follow the class at the classroom, to provide assistance to the teacher, to take part in the elaboration and publication of curriculum, to take part in the training and qualification process for teachers, to guarantee (or not) the teacher to teach at school. We perform all this functions in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education”4.

The teachers of Armenian Church history are under the permanent pressure and supervision by the specialists of Christian Education Center at Etchmiadzin, officials of Ministry of Education, principal of the school, parents (especially when they have different worldviews, religious belonging or approaches) and civil society organizations (local and international) implementing monitoring of the teaching process. However, the access of the civil society members to schools is restricted and they should gain prior agreement from Etchmiadzin or Ministry of Education. Taking into account the law salaries and the permanent pressure many of the young teachers does not continue their teaching activities but rather prefer to work in private sector. 

Another issue is the selection of supervisors for the subject by the Christian Education center as there are not enough qualified specialists, especially in the regions. The same person cannot work as supervisor and teacher which the center considers as the clash of interests. For the first period the supervisors were only the clergy of Armenian Apostolic Church but later was introduced the institute of “secular supervisors”. The secular supervisors regularly attend the classes at schools and at the end of semester they present a report of their work to the head of the diocese. Any problems at the diocese are resolved by the close cooperation of the head of diocese and State officials of the region. Finally the head of dioceses report Mother See Holy Etchmiadzin on the progress of their work, any difficulties and challenges faced and the methods of overcoming those challenges.

According to the Toledo Guidelines and also Labor Law (Article 132, Clause 4) a person may not be deprived of teaching religions and beliefs based on his/her personal faith, belief or convictions. The mentioned Clause of the Labor Law mentions that the employer has not any rights to acquire personal data on beliefs and convictions of his employer. One of the regional officials mentioned that “All teachers belong to Armenian Apostolic Church. We do not have followers of other religions”. He also mentioned that atheists may not work as teachers of Armenian Church history subject as they cannot understand the content of the teaching material without having faith in God5. The supervisors of the subject regularly study the teaching process, the copy books of the pupils, changes in the worldviews of pupils to find out any “deviations” from the teaching material and the doctrine of Mother Church. “In one of the schools of Yerevan the director of the school notices that the pupils of only one class essentially differ from the others by their behavior, isolation and marginalization. She called the specialists of the Christian Education center who found out that their teacher belong to different religious organization and uses the classes for preaching and interpreting the textbook materials by its own way. We managed to change the teacher and the problem was solved”6. The head of Christian Education center archimandrite Vardan Navasardyan brings several examples of challenges with teachers having different religious and philosophical convictions. Some of them were changes by their active intervention, some of them changes their style of teaching and did not impose their worldviews on the pupils.

On February 18, 2912 the TV channel “Shant” broadcasted reportage where the Minister of Education talks about firing of about 20 teachers from public schools who were doing religious preaching at schools. The context of such announcement was against the religious minorities as it is impossible to imagine that a majority representative shall do preaching at school and be fired for such action. The “Collaboration for Democracy center” sent a letter to the Minister requesting to provide the information declared and also the causes for such administrative action. The Ministry refused to provide such information stating that there is not any agreement between the NGO and Ministry though, according to the Article 6, Clause 3 of the Law on Freedom of Information the Ministry had to provide such information to the requesting party. By rejecting to provide the information the Minister violated its positive and negative obligations according to the Article 11 of the same Law and did not provide any relevant basis for such rejection. This story showed that a high official of the Government may do such political announcement in the presence of head of Etchmiadzin spiritual center to show the support of the Government to the majority Church and also to give a start for pressure against any teacher who has different religious worldviews.

The close cooperation between the Armenian Apostolic Church and Government of Armenia raised a lot of questions within the civil society representatives and religious minorities. The delegation of State functions to one religious organization violates the rights of other religious groups, breaches the international obligations of Armenia and also violates the constitution division of the State and Church.

1. This was taught by a teacher at the school N 139 who worked all his life as teacher of history and after introduction of the Armenian Church history started to teach this subject as well. He even was awarded as the best teacher of the year for the mentioned subject.
2. Radionews, Liana Eghaizaryan, 18.02.2012, 15:39 p.m.
3. Ibid.
4. Interview with the head of the Christian Education Center archimandrite Vardan Navasardyan taken by A. Avtandilyan.
5. Interview with the head of education department of Lori region Mayis Khachatryan.
6. Interview with the head of the Christian Education Center archimandrite Vardan Navasardyan taken by A. Avtandilyan.