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Religious freedom at Sri Lanka schools under spotlight

ECONOMYNEXT- Sri Lanka’s public education system requires reforms to ensure that the freedom to choose and practice one’s religion or belief is protected, a UN Special Rapporteur said.

“The education sector requires reform,” Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed told reporters in Colombo during a recent visit.

He said that the Sri Lankan government should not be in the business of forcing students to choose one of the four main religions (Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity) and study them for 11 years.

Students are forced to sit for one of the four religion papers at the Ordinary Level examinations, the main school qualification given at the end of Grade 11 in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has been wracked by religious and ethnic strife for several decades. The origins of Sri Lanka’s current education system lay in a denominational school system started by the British with partial state funding.

In some schools, especially in rural areas, only one religion followed by the majority community in the region is taught.

Students are also made to take part in religious activities of a religion offered in schools, robbing the freedom to choose and study Judaism, Shintoism, Rastafarianism, Paganism, Scientology or no religion at all.

However, parents or students of such different religions must pay the same taxes as those following the four main religions to fund public schools.

“Indoctrinating into a religious tradition should be voluntary, and there should be no coercion at all on the part of the state,” Shaheed said.

“There’s bad practice here. Having an opt-out system is not as good as having an opt-in system.”

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“An opt-out system would be in a class of say thirty students, one person says, ‘I’m an atheist, I’m a rationalist, I’m this, I’m that’ and steps out of the classroom and gets stigmatized by the rest.”

“The opt-in system will be asking ‘which of these classes would you like to take part in?’ and they can choose Islam or whatever class they want.”

“There should be attempts to protect the freedom to choose and the freedom of parents to ensure that their children are raised in a faith of their choosing, and not of the government or schools choosing and also to ensure that they opting out does not stigmatise them in the classroom.”

“The state may of course, in many ways, teach religions, so that students have an understanding of different religions, so they don’t become victim to fear and prejudice that some people might exploit if there was no awareness of different religions.”

Private schools may choose their own form of religious education, he said.

Shaheed said providing an all-round education of various religions would be ideal for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country such as Sri Lanka.

“Curriculum should include knowledge of other religions taught in a neutral, objective way, so they can get an understanding about different religions, what they are about, so that they understand different ways.”

Shaheed said that there is simmering ethno-religious tensions, fueled by extremist thinking of fear against other religions.

He said that these tensions have been present even before the Easter Sunday attacks. (Colombo/Sep01/2019)