Preventing Violence and Building Peace

Author: Paul Bhatti

Preventing Violence and Building Peace

Paul Bhatti

Education guarantees religious freedom

From 5-11 November [2013] the international conference "Identity, alterity, universality" was held in Milan and Moscow. The meeting was organized by the Russian Christian Foundation of Bergamo and by the Cultural Center Library of the Spirit of Moscow. The speakers included the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola. The following are excerpts of one of the addresses given by the brother of Shabhaz Bhatti, Minister far Minority Affairs in Pakistan, killed by Islamic extremists on 11 March 2011.

In Pakistan, today there are a myriad of challenges being faced by our beloved country, such as the economic crisis, political instability, sectarian violence, religious intolerance and discrimination. The persistently high levels of poverty and illiteracy have further aggravated the situation. Every day we face the cruel and harsh realities of losing precious lives, innocent victims, including out children and women. People from all sectors of society are affected and impacted in a deep way. Sadly, it has become a part of routine life. We are a nation that is truly suffering.

Despite its strategic location, growing young population, potential for stable democracy, and having enjoyed periods of relative prosperity, Pakistan continues to need to confront terrorism, religious extremism, under-development and political instability.

Pakistan's literacy rate is just 55.5%. Half of all adults, including two out of three women, are illiterate. The 18th Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan requires the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 5 and 16 by law. In 2012 an estimated 20 million children of all school ages, including 7.3 million primary school-aged children, did not attend school. This deprived them of their right to education and prevented them from reaching their full potential. Investing in children and their education is both a right in principle and must be so in practice due to the positive impacts it has on so many socioeconomic and religious dimensions.

Real acts of violence, religious intolerance and discrimination in Pakistan are inspired by extremist ideologies. A particularly concerning result of such discrimination against minorities is decreased access to justice for non-Muslims. This is beyond the more general faults in the system. Often, blasphemy accusations are used to settle personal scores, to target religious minorities, to further extremist agendas.

When my late brother Shahbaz Clement Bhatti, lifelong human rights activist and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance was appointed Federal Minister in 2008 for Minorities Affairs, the religious minorities of Pakistan received a much-needed boost. He was able to introduce reforms to bring religious minorities into the mainstream of society. In three years, he had several achievements, like planning and formation of religious harmony committees to promote religious freedom and relationship between peoples of diverse faiths. This has given tremendous hope for religious freedom in Pakistan.

Contrary to what is often feared, religious freedom does not create social instability but actually leads to increased public order. Societies are more likely to flourish when its citizens have the freedom to voice their deepest beliefs and highest ideals. During the past few years, a number of studies show the benefits of religious freedom to civil society all over the world. The research data and case studies of several countries shows that by ensuring religious freedom for all promotes social stability and reduces violent religious persecution and conflict. Because freedom of religion is part of a basic human right and the denial of religious freedom is inevitably the denial of others freedoms. There is also a positive correlation between religious freedom and a variety of other social benefits such as gender empowerment, lower poverty and equality of life.

We believe that education is a key with the potential to transform the world's future for the long-term. We know that education empowers people to lift themselves out of poverty. Children who are able to enjoy the benefits of quality education also have every opportunity to engage in meaningful employment, which in turn impacts on the economic growth and brings peace in societies. We have to improve access and the quality of schooling, wherever and however possible.
The alternative is disparities in education influenced by multiple factors such as wealth, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, low early learning opportunities and generally low quality of learning.

We believe that the role played by educators is pivotal to the inherent success of any educational programme, bringing effective change for the future. "How and what is taught [including the 'hidden curriculum' or that which is modeled, though not deliberately taught] deeply influences whether children appreciate and respect ethnic and religious diversity, or view religious minorities negatively as valueless aliens in their own country. We know that, if instilled early in life, these negative attitudes resist change and contribute to the disintegration of the social fabric of communities, to discrimination, and finally, to sectarian violence.

Tackling poverty and building a stable, prosperous, and democratic societies will not only help millions of people to obtain better opportunities of life but also bring stability, security and peace in the region.

It is imperative that we promote freedom of religion and values beyond childhood. We know that societies are more likely to flourish when its citizens have the freedom to voice their deepest beliefs and highest ideals. At least 90% of the world population are religious believers. Therefore, more than ever, there is a growing need for dialogue and relationship between religious communities.

The role of religion in conflict presents urgent challenges that require greater understanding and cooperation among people of diverse faiths. I would like to quote what Pope Benedict XVI said, "Religious freedom is an authentic weapon of peace, with an historical and prophetic mission. Peace brings to full fruition the deepest qualities and potentials of the human person, the qualities that can change the world and make it better. It gives hope for a future of justice and peace, even in the face of grave injustice and material and moral poverty."

It is within this context I propose a way forward in order that religious freedom can be the solution to creating peace in the world.

In Western nations, it is taken for granted that nobody is authorized to kill or make justice for them in the name of religion. This is for reasons of personal freedom that respects human rights to individual faith.

In Pakistan, we also must address religious freedom together with human rights because life is a precious gift of God and only He has the right to give it and take it away.

It is the great need of our time that all religions, all different faiths come together and take concrete steps for action to overcome evil with good. We seek to promote a fair and just world, where peace, security, welfare and human dignity are all taken for granted.

Let us stand in solidarity uniting for the cause of religious freedom building the road of religious education, thus bringing about peace and an end to violence in the world.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 December 2013, page 14

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