SERGIYEV POSAD, Moscow Oblast -- If it weren't for the black uniforms and the fact that all of the young students are male, this classroom could be almost any educational institution in Russia.
Desks are stacked with piles of books. Some students have brought laptops, many of which are open to Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Other pupils chat casually with friends.
But then a teacher enters the classroom. The students stand up and, turning to face an icon hanging on the wall, begin morning prayers before starting a lesson on early Christian martyrs.
This is Sergiyev Posad, home to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the most important monastery in Russia and the spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church. Located on Russia's Golden Ring, a circle of historic cities just northeast of Moscow, it is also home to the Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary, where budding priests from all over Russia come to train.
Today Russia is marking a newly resurrected holiday: the commemoration of the adoption of Christianity in 10th-century Kievan Rus. The celebration comes at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church is increasingly seen as one of the Kremlin's most effective tools in forging a new, post-Soviet national identity. The rise of the church and its ties to "Russianness" have worried many who say it fuels discrimination against the country's ethnic and religious minorities.State Orthodoxy
But at St. Sergius, Russia's best-known seminary, students and instructors argue that the church is a force for moderation and tolerance. This current crop of young men is preparing to enter the priesthood at a time when the influence of the Orthodox Church and its ties to the Russian state are seen as on the rise.
Twenty years ago, the church was official anathema. But today the Russian political elite, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, make a show of their Orthodox devotion.
They attend Christmas and Easter Mass and have added new religious holidays to the state calendar -- such as today's commemoration of the Baptism of Kievan Rus, when Grand Prince Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity and proceeded to baptize all of his subjects.
The 10th-century event is seen as both the birth of Christian belief and political empire in what was to become in part modern-day Russia. The Russian parliament, approving the new holiday, said the establishing of the Christian faith in the 10th century "helped promote the consolidation and flourishing of the state and exerted a great influence on the maintenance of Russia's unity at knotty periods of history."
Such sentiments have stirred concerns of deepening bonds between church and state at a time when the Kremlin is looking to fuel patriotic and national sentiment as a way of boosting its authority. Russian officials have even helped carve out new roles for the church in normally secular aspects of society -- like a plan to appoint Orthodox priests as military chaplains in the Russian Army.
The Russian Constitution currently makes a clear division between church and state. But in practice, says Andrei Zolotov, an expert in Russian religious affairs, the two sides enjoy a cozier, European-style partnership. He suggests the constitution may eventually be amended to allow a formal church-state bond to flourish.
"The constitution doesn't work if it prescribes things that are far from national traditions and historical development. I think that in the long run -- in the next 50-100 years -- there will be a need for new legislation to determine church-state relations in Russia," Zolotov says.
The seminary in Sergiyev Posad is one of around 30 in Russia
The church has blossomed under its political patronage and with the enthronement last year of Patriarch Kirill, who is seen as more dynamic and liberal than his predecessor, Aleksy, who had been raised in the Cold War tradition of subterranean ties between church and state and was appointed in the waning days of the Soviet Union.Superstar Patriarch
Now, the state seems openly willing to accommodate many items on the church's agenda, to the degree that human rights activists are getting worried. Lev Levinson of the For Human Rights NGO says the state appears to have become far more pliant in its new relationship with Kirill.
"In the last year and a half since the arrival of the Patriarch Kirill, there has been a clear push on the state in different areas in the interests of the church," Levinson says.
Kirill has become one of Russia's most visible figures, whether blessing the Russian Olympic team at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral ahead of the Vancouver games or riding shotgun for photographers in Putin's 1956 vintage Volga. At the same time, he has been steadily reestablishing ties with church leaders in former Soviet republics -- including a current nine-day tour of Ukraine -- and keeping a watchful eye on the church's emerging detente with the Vatican.
More controversially, Kirill has sought to increase television coverage of church events and bring compulsory Orthodox education into school curricula, moves that have raised protests in a country with four official religions -- Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.
The church has also successfully lobbied the government to pass legislation allowing it to reclaim much of its property lost in the Soviet era, a move that has rendered it one of the country's largest real-estate holders.
Many worry the state is using the church as a vanguard in its efforts to establish a new, post-Soviet national identity that is heavy on patriotism -- and, to critics, low on tolerance.
The Liberty of Conscience Institute, an independent Moscow-based group that fights xenophobia and religious intolerance in Russia, has described the relationship between the church and the state as "symbiotic," saying it was leading to discrimination against other religious minorities.
A Tatar historian, Nurulla Garif, describes the increasing presence of the church in state affairs -- including today's celebration of the Christianization of Russia -- as "politically wrong."
"The Russian Orthodox Church has permeated state institutions and become a weapon that has enabled the state to manipulate its people. Religion is not bad, but you shouldn't use religion as a weapon against your own people or other peoples," Garif says.
The students in Sergiyev Posad participate in a dinner prayer before sitting down to a meal of beet salad and vegetable soup in the seminary cafeteria.
In a way, these seminary pupils are a religious minority in themselves. Although 60-80 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, religious devotion is rare. Less than 8 percent of the population is believed to attend Orthodox Church services.
Pavel Velikanov, who has taught at the Sergiyev Posad seminary for 12 years, is quick to dismiss the concerns of critics who say that the church is growing too powerful. Dressed in black vestments with a large cross around his neck, he says if anything, it is ignorance of Orthodox beliefs that best characterizes Russian society.
"When I hear cries about the churchification of society, about how the church is taking over everything, I get a smile on my face, as you only need to go into any home and you will see an icon on the wall and it won't be in the right corner. It will just be somewhere on a bookshelf," Velikanov said.
As Velikanov sees it, is the job of his pupils to ensure that future generations of Russians know not only where to hang their icons but, in his words, to understand Orthodoxy as "the church wants."
There are an estimated 2,000 students studying at roughly 30 seminaries in Russia -- as well as a newly opened Orthodox seminary in France, the first of its kind outside Russia.
At Sergiyev Posad, students can complete a five-year course to become a priest or do an additional three-year course to receive the equivalent of a doctorate and go on to become theologians. Students live, learn, and eat together, and the atmosphere at the school is bustling and collegial.
Students receive no direct instruction on church-state relations, but echoes of the debate raging outside the seminary can be heard here as well, with the students enjoying lively conversations about religion, politics, and the role of church in Russia.
I think Father Daniil showed some extreme views by condemning Islam"
Maksim Burdin, a 22-year-old fourth-year student who exudes a quiet self-assurance, rejects the notion that the church and the state work in concert -- but says they should always be in harmony.
"You can't divide the church and the state like two books from each other. They have a parallel existence and the two should not interfere with each other's work. People from the church and people from the state should help each other. The state has the aim of building a great power, and the church can't go against that if the state doesn't go against church teachings," Burdin says.
Some critics have charged the state has sought to equate Orthodox belief with Russianness as a way of shoring up national unity.
But instructors and students at Sergiyev Posad are quick to note the seminary offers instruction on the country's other official religions as well as on the minority faiths -- referred to as "sects" by the Orthodox Church -- that proselytize in Russia, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, and Mormons.
Velikanov says his students are expected to respect other religions, something he considers vital in a multifaith country like Russia. There is nothing in Orthodox theology, he argues, that puts devotion to your faith before tolerance and an open mind.
"Genuine believers differ from fanatics first and foremost in that they have respect for different viewpoints and for the choice that another person has made. I think that one of our main aims [at the seminary] is to instill in students this kind of respectful attitude," Velikanov says.
First-year seminary student Sergei Pylishkin came to the seminary from a St. Petersburg family of factory workers who rarely went to church. He says he became interested in becoming a priest after a chance encounter with an Orthodox believer.
With no religious background, 23-year-old Pylishkin says the seminary's willingness to teach about other faiths is useful in helping future priests like him to examine their own devotion to Orthodoxy, and prepares them to address the doubts and concerns of their own future congregations.
"[The instructors] don't say, 'We're Orthodox and we're right and everyone else is all bad.' They explain what is different about each, not ridiculing any religion. That way, we're making an active choice, and we can answer people's questions [about Orthodoxy] when we leave the seminary," Pylishkin says.
But at a time when Orthodox curriculum may potentially be added to classrooms in even Muslim-majority republics like Tatarstan, and when xenophobic attacks against non-Slavs continue to climb, even the future priests concede there is a fine line between devotion and fanaticism.
Burdin considers the case of Daniil Sysoyev, a Moscow-based Orthodox priest who was murdered late last year in an attack many linked to his aggressive proselytizing of Muslims. Sysoyev was buried in an ornate ceremony presided over by Patriarch Kirill. But his death sparked a heated debate about the growing tensions between the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam. Burdin says while he considers the slain priest a martyr, he does not support the way he actively sought to convert Muslims to Orthodox Christianity.
"It became, maybe, the logical end of his service here on earth. Some may not agree with me, but I think Father Daniil showed some extreme views by condemning Islam," Burdin says.
"Looking at the methods he used to fight Islam, I can't say they're acceptable. The seed of the church is the blood of martyrs, to be sure, but in our time of tolerance, and tolerance of other beliefs, this method does not seem the one to use."
At the same time, the students defend the dominance of the Orthodox Church over the country's minority religions, and say increased religious programming on TV is helpful to believers in far-flung corners of the country who have no local churches or priests. After all, Burdin argues, most Russians were raised in the Orthodox tradition -- shouldn't they be the priority?
"It's important to understand national traditions. Russians have been raised with Orthodoxy all their lives, so seeing other religious programs is difficult for them," Burdin says.
"You'd be right to say that there's a priority for Orthodox if there was a ban on other religious programs, but there are probably Islamic channels, too. There are." RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report