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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RELIGION & COHESION

June 9, 2009

Respecting faith's different faces
By Tony Blair, For The Straits Times

FAITH matters. Even if you are not of religious faith yourself. Over four billion people worldwide recognise themselves as religious. They may not attend an organised place of worship. But faith plays a part in their lives.
A recent poll found that religion is important for about 30 per cent to 35per cent of people in Europe, 65 per cent of Americans and for about 90 per cent of people in most Muslim-majority countries.
started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation because I believe the modern world cannot work unless people from different faiths and cultures learn to live in peaceful co-existence with each other. Understanding increases the possibility of peace. Ignorance increases the potential for division.

The reason this is so important today is that globalisation is shrinking the space we live in, pushing people together in a way that is unique in human history. Some dislike this process. Some, like me, are content and even welcome it.

If religious faith becomes a counter-force to this process, one which pulls people apart, then it becomes reactionary and divisive. If I defined myself as a Christian in opposition to you as a Muslim, then just as we are forced to live together by globalisation, so we will be forced apart by a view of religious faith that is exclusionary and hostile to those of a different faith to our own.

The Faith Foundation works in a number of ways to prevent this happening. One way is an inter-faith encounter through action, which is why we are supporting the United Nations' anti-malaria campaign, to mobilise faith communities to become centres of distribution for bed nets and medicines in Africa. We work also for reconciliation where religion is a dimension in political conflict, as in the Middle East.

A key part of our work is education. In partnership with Yale University, we now have a 'Faith and Globalisation' course. This is now being extended to four other universities worldwide, including the National University of Singapore which I visited earlier this year.

Now we are adding a new dimension: an education programme linking up schools across the globe and across faiths. To be launched officially today, Face To Faith is designed to encourage young people of different faiths to learn directly with, from and about each other. Through structured video- conferencing, an online community and course syllabus, it gets secondary school students from across the world to work together, investigating big global issues. In this way, Face To Faith will encourage young people not only to recognise the similarities between faiths but also, importantly, to respect and deal with the differences.

Young people involved in the pilot are already reporting how their understanding of the role of faith in today's world has increased by learning from those of differing social, cultural and religious perspectives. A student from Indian Heights School in New Delhi commented: 'It's so much more interesting and real to learn directly from people of a different religion rather than simply reading about them in a book.'

I am particularly impressed by the way our lead school in Singapore, National Junior College, has taken up the challenge. NJC principal Virginia Cheng was an early pioneer of the programme, and her pupils have responded superbly. The school's engagement in Face To Faith is a testament to the way in which Singapore has embraced the concepts of a globalised world and the way in which people of different faiths must live within it. They have been a valuable leader in the development of this programme.

Already schools in Pakistan, India, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Indonesia, Thailand, Britain, the United States and Canada have taken up the Face To Faith programme and some interesting offshoots are emerging. Two schools in Canada and Palestine are extending the programme, originally designed for 11- to 16-year-olds, by arranging video conference discussions between groups of parents and grandparents interested in improving their understanding of different faiths.

And these adults are not the only ones. One of the Lebanese teachers involved in the programme commented: 'One of the highlights of Face To Faith is the regular exchange with the other teachers of different faiths who have already taught me so much about different practices and perspectives.'

The Faith Foundation is dedicated to achieving understanding, action and reconciliation between the different faiths for the common good. It is not about the faith that looks inward; but the faith that resolutely turns us towards each other.

The writer, the former prime minister of Britain, is founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

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