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To bridge religious divide, let students engage students

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Charles C. Haynes
February 9, 2012

In a world torn by holy wars and ethnic divides, preparing young people to address differences in faith and belief should be a no-brainer.


After all, history teaches that religious intolerance and hate are often rooted in ignorance and fear.


That’s why it’s disturbing, if not dangerous, that most schools in the United States and around the globe largely ignore religion, doing little or nothing to help students live in a world where religion and religious differences clearly matter.


Fortunately, one foundation—the Tony Blair Faith Foundation—is daring to go where few have gone before by giving students meaningful opportunities to learn from one another about the role of faith and belief in public life.


Called “Face to Faith,” the foundation’s schools initiative uses videoconferencing and online community to connect students directly with their peers in classrooms across the world. Launched in 2009, Face to Faith is now in more than 500 schools in 17 countries. (Disclosure: I serve as an adviser to the program in the U.S.)


Last week, country-coordinators from participating nations gathered in London to report progress and plan expansion. The good news is that despite barriers—everything from political tensions to lack of technology—many schools are eager to participate. (For more about how the program is working in various countries, visit tonyblairfaithfoundation.org.)


In some regions of the world, of course, even talking about religions and beliefs can be a risky business. Consider Pakistan, where political turmoil, extremist threats and widespread poverty create daunting conditions for any educational initiative—much less one that involves civil dialogue among people of vastly different faiths and cultures.


Nevertheless, the Pakistani coordinator for Face to Faith, a courageous educator named Danish, has overcome skepticism from some and hostility from others to persuade 31 schools to implement the program—with many more waiting in the wings.


Remarkably, given the bitter (often violent) animosity between Pakistan and neighboring India, Danish has worked with Simmi, the Indian coordinator, to link students from schools in both nations.


Step one is to prep students in the art of civil discourse, including how to address deep differences without going for the jugular. But once a Face to Faith videoconference begins, the focus is on student voice. Students speak directly with students, giving many of them the first opportunity in their lives to put a human face to the Other.


“They get beyond what they have heard from politicians about India as the enemy,” says Danish. “When Pakistani and Indian students participate in a videoconference, they discuss the differences and similarities of different faiths and beliefs—and show respect for each other.”


Over the past year, American schools have begun to get involved. At the London meeting, the U.S. coordinator reported that Face to Faith is now active in some 50 public and private schools in 13 states. Students in schools across America have already engaged students in Israel, India, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Pakistan and elsewhere.


The potential of Face to Faith for dealing with the challenges of religious diversity has not gone unnoticed by American educators and government officials. Last fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined students from Chantilly High School in Fairfax, Va., for a transatlantic videoconference with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and students from the United Arab Emirates.


“The United States is changing rapidly,” Duncan said during the exchange. “Young people need to embrace it—not be overwhelmed by diversity. There are two paths: tolerance or intolerance, and we can look to young people to help lead us to tolerance. Face to Faith is an amazingly inspiring and powerful way to learn, and create more space for this important dialogue.”


What ultimately matters, of course, is how this initiative affects students. Although the evaluation of the program is preliminary at this early stage, anecdotal evidence is strong that the program is working.


“Face to Faith not only serves to inform us about other religions,” says one New York student, “but it also humanizes them.”


Students learning with, from and about other students across the world may not change the world overnight. But it’s a very good place to start.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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