Religious intolerance has no place in educational institutions
Worship is so central to Kenyans that it is part of the preamble to our Constitution as well as the premises on which the national anthem is based.
Earlier this week, I came across some disturbing stories of how some schools understand and exercise the right to freedom of worship. Some extremist tendencies like the destruction of symbols of other religions do not build a nation. They are clumsy and should be discouraged at all times.
The school administrator has several rights with regard to worship. In some schools, the owners of the institutions decide that the children practice a religion of their choice (owners). In others, students have the right to practice their faith in the best possible way. In others, religion is barely recognized.
However, the government recognizes the right to worship and so in primary and secondary schools, both private and public, a lesson is reserved, usually on Fridays, for religious worship.
When it comes to private school ownership and religious practice, there are two exclusive sides to each other. On the one hand, it doesn’t matter if a school sticks to a predetermined spirituality for everyone or allows diversity in worship. Of course, depending on the nature of each school, the worship options may be limited to one.
For example, seminaries are Catholic high schools for students who intend to be religious men, even though in the process of learning they find that they are not called to this kind of vocation. They follow the usual high school program and take the exams like everyone else. In this case, the dominant religion of the owners is the spiritual mark of the school.
All in all, it is important when schools do not respect freedom of worship. When some zealous teachers begin to destroy the symbols that students use for their personal faith practice, they cross the line. For Catholics, a rosary is a big deal. It is wrong when a teacher confronts a child wearing a rosary, confiscates it, cuts it to pieces, leaving the child in complete confusion. It reveals that some teachers are religious fundamentalists.
Holy books such as the Bible and the Koran are symbols of faith. Some religious practices include a dress code. Others like the Catholic Church use blessed objects (the rosary, the cross, among others) as symbols of faith in everyday life. Religious symbols are numerous and very different from each other.
Government policies on religious worship make it clear that freedom of worship in educational institutions is well protected by law. Policies are domesticated so that teachers and all school support staff know and respect them.
In addition, Kenya has a religious plurality. This is something to promote in our schools. Interfaith dialogue and ecumenical scholars and advocates find great values in sharing religious diversity, including religious symbols. In school programs, children are taken through the major religions of the world to grow up with an open mind towards people other than “us”.
At the very least, a teacher should be aware of these religious basics. So I find it quite strange that in the 21st century there is someone in this country coming into the classroom to sow the seeds of religious intolerance. To destroy the religious symbols of children is a senseless religious provocation.
Any religious dissatisfaction should be left to the school administration for advice. If there is one thing Kenya needs, it is strong interfaith dialogue and not irrational acts of religious ignorance. I have no doubt that religious leaders and the government have been exceptionally successful in promoting religious coexistence, even in schools.
It is time for our leaders to make sure teachers understand the basic rights of children in school.
Dr Mokua is Executive Director, Loyola Center for Media and Communications