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Freedom to learn
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 04 - 2009

Bishop Yohanna Qalta* sketches a vision for religious education in the Egyptian school curricula
Religiosity is not one of Egypt's features but a part of its historical, geographical and psychological construction. Religiosity is an essential element in the Egyptian character. Without it Egypt would not be Egypt. Egypt declared the oneness of God a thousand years before the revealed religions, "Thee the One who created human beings" ( Book of the Dead -- translated by Mohsen Lotfi El-Sayed, p.13). Sigmund Freud accused Egypt of inventing religions, a charge Hussein Fawzi rebutted in his book Sindbad. Fawzi argued Egypt did not invent religions but discovered the religious instinct.
For 7,000 years Egypt has had a central role in the procession of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and is still playing its role as a religious nation. Religion is part of the life of Egypt. It has seen no religious wars since the creed of Akhenaton receded, has not been disrupted by denominationalism or innovations. Its geography has protected it from the diseases that plague other nations.
Egypt lies at the heart of the old world. It is a gathering pool of cultures and civilisations and has experienced variety and multiplicity for centuries. Attempts by intruding and incoming doctrines failed to contain it or polarise its people's feelings. It is one nation, made by geography, not split by mountains or seas it has territorial contiguity. History and geography conspired to form the psychology of its people. They love life, erected civilisations and received thoughts without fear of complexes. Till today Egypt represents a model for co-existence, sympathy and non-violence. Hardly surprising, in such a context, that religion is a subject in the primary, preparatory and secondary stages of education.
The Egyptian constitution stipulates that "Islam is the state's official religion". The article caused heated debates between Islamic thinkers and law professors in 1923 and though a number of constitutional changes have subsequently taken place the article has remained intact. Egyptian Copts found nothing that infringes on their freedom of worship in the article, especially since another article stipulates clearly that freedom of worship is assured for all Egyptians.
The constitution confirms that all Egyptians are equal in rights and duties before the law. Here lies the genius of the Egyptian legislator who put what the conscience of the majority agrees with. At the same time, the rights of others were guaranteed.
Departing from the Egyptian constitution, religious education was imposed as a subject in the curricula of the Ministry of Education from the primary to the secondary stages. Of course it is not a subject in universities. University is a stage of research, invoking free thinking and self-education. For those who wish, there are colleges in which to continue religious studies. Al-Azhar is an inclusive university and there are no restrictions on those seeking to join Christian clerical colleges which specialise in the religious sciences though I hope that the state comes to recognise their certificates as similar to Al-Azhar.
It is not easy to screen books on the subject of religious education but according to the curricula as they are varied and multiple. It is taken for granted that these books complement each other so that the student at the end of the secondary stage finds himself with adequate knowledge of the realities of belief and religious tenets. This requires a clear and integrated plan for religious culture from childhood till joining university which itself necessitates an integrated vision and effort by the committees that specialise in putting together text books. A critical and objective look at the reality of religious education books, without discrimination between Islam and Christianity, reveals the following.
In general, religious books include a host of information on religion. However, some include religious historical materials characterised by exaggeration that twists history at the expense of fact. They also portray the past as a "lost paradise" and those who lived in the past as if they were good clergymen or saints. Undoubtedly, this distorts reality, overlooks reason and logical thinking, since you can never argue that was a perfect generation of infallible people. Humans are always human, earthly life always earthly life, righteousness and mistakes a product of human deeds. To portray the past and its people as a semi-divine society replete with angel-like humans is a mistake. A key objective of education is to gradually bring up children to love truth, beauty and goodness without feeling that they will never be capable to compete with the heroic deeds of their ancestors. It is important to highlight good people and present them as role models, yet it is equally important to cite examples of human weaknesses so as not to turn religious text books into myths.
It is extremely important in selecting religious texts that the students will study or recite by heart to make sure that they are attractive, constructive and appropriate, both in terms of the students' ages and characters. We all realise that there are certain texts which were revealed under specific circumstances, serving a clear purpose. They might contain some hardline and rather cruel expressions. The Christian Sacred Book, and the pre-Christ Old Testament, are replete with verses and events that depict particular eras or figures with a warmongering nature and which urge fighting and the crushing of enemies. Such expressions were sincere wishes from certain periods, mirroring the mentality and traditions of peoples living at that time. They represent a product of the then environment and its dominant nature that might not be appropriate for instructing contemporary students. The expressions contained implicit messages for their time. Now we are in dire need of texts that contribute to developing modern human beings capable of keeping pace with the ever changing cultures and customs of contemporary societies. Because of the numerous Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christian sects, religious text books should discuss historical facts in a way that serves reconciliation, asserting that all of these sects reflect Christian traits which do not necessarily contradict one another. Such a responsibility has to be shouldered by churches.
Despite that it is not an easy task to work as a teacher of religion, either Islamic or Christian, we find that in most cases Arabic language teachers teach the subject of Islamic religion while in some cases, teachers of art or French or high school graduates carry such an important responsibility on the Christian side. If such a state of affairs continues we can safely say that we risk damaging the mentality and way of thinking of future generations. An efficient Arabic language teacher would not necessarily be an equally efficient teacher of Islamic religion. Similarly, how can Christians accept and feel re-assured when a teacher of drawing is entrusted to teach religion to the young and impressionable? Where are the graduates of Azhar schools and institutions, of where are theology and clerical schools and colleges? Such an important subject should be dealt with with respect.
It is a catastrophe to consider religion a success- failure subject, or even to include its grades in the final aggregate of students. To do so reduces religion into one subject among many.
Worse, personal emotions might play a part in any assessment as unjust meddling is used to boost the grades of one's co-religionists. Such an approach should be completely excluded from our educational system. Religion is a message not a profession, an example not some pieces of information, actual behaviour and not theory. The child has to know his religion from a very early stage not because he wants to get higher grades when he grows up but to strengthen his conscience, purge his feelings and become someone who believes in sublime values. The fact is, though, we sometimes deal with the young in an unjust manner, sowing the seeds of rivalry and fanaticism within their souls.
Any future vision for the subject of religion in schools must maintain the religious and dogmatic constants of all religions and present them in the context of a comprehensive curriculum that appeals to the reason and emotions of young people in an easy, clear manner and without any extremism or harassment of other religions.
The subject of religion should be studied as an inseparable part of the oneness and continuity of human culture and civilisations. No civilisation was ever created from scratch. All children, young people and university students should realise that humanity, with its different religions and cultures, has added and contributed to all civilisations. In essence, civilisation is an attempt to give the soul and reason the upper hand over materialism, and also to discover the secrets of nature and its richness. Humans are the representatives of God Almighty on earth.
Within the subject of religion there must be separate lessons on the diversity of religions and cultures. Opening up to other cultures should not be dealt with in the university stage but should start from early childhood. The child should realise that human history is replete with cultures that have contributed to the progress and advances that we presently enjoy. Getting to know the treasures of different cultures should not cause anyone concern. A key pillar of different human cultures, including our Arab culture, is to esteem reason, respect science and scientists belonging to all religions and nationalities and to benefit from the experiences of other peoples.
The whole world calls for spreading the culture of peace. Religion, in fact, is the most appropriate medium to serve this purpose, a source of light, righteousness, love, beauty, peace and security. Our world suffers from extremism, terrorism and brutality because the culture of peace is not deeply rooted within the souls of the young.
Humans are not created to kill their fellows and nations are not destined to destroy other nations. We have all been created to form one common family. Seeds of evil and goodness alike are found in our world and it is imperative upon us to strengthen the good seeds in our future generations and boost their inner tendencies to counter evil and hatred.
Despite their different origins, ages and social status, all humans share the same dignity and hence enjoy the same right to education (Human Rights Convention issued on 10 December 1998 and Children's Rights Paper issued on 20 November 1959) in a way that suits their customs and traditions. They should be willing to have brotherly exchanges with other peoples in order to secure real unity and enhance world peace. A key objective for an efficient education system is to create a good human being capable of fulfilling his duties and serving his community. Sound pedagogic and psychological approaches must be adopted in our education system to help children and young people develop their mental capabilities and inherent talents and gifts in a manner that gradually urges them to shoulder their responsibilities in order to make sure that they lead a normal, good life and enjoy freedom through bravely overcoming the obstacles they encounter throughout their lives.
* The writer is deputy Patriarch of the Catholic Copts.

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