24 September Sep 2012 1532 24 September 2012

Civil Society and Education on Human Rights as a tool for promoting religious tolerance – UNGA – September 27th

Freedom of religion is a basic right of each person and the protection of religious minorities worldwide should represent a priority to governments, international organizations and NGOs. This issue has been at center of the event co-chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy, H.E. Mr. Giulio Terzi,  and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, H.E. Mr. Nasser Judeh, on the margin of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27th.

“Through today’s event – affirmed  Mr. Giulio Terzi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy - we wish to strengthen the shared commitment of international organizations, governments, political forces and civil society to advance universal values of civility. It is a global necessity that regards not only specific areas of the world or single religious groups. This universal approach is reflected in the presence today of personalities and NGOs from a variety of geographic areas, representatives of different religions, and groups of secular and non-confessional inspiration”.
The Ministerial session “The Civil Society and the Education on Human Rights as a tool for promoting religious tolerance” featured key-note speeches from the High Commissioner for Human Rights,Ms. Navanethem Pillay, from the UNESCO Director General, Ms. Irina Bokova, and from the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng and was followed byexpert-level interactive panels.
The many participants, members of governments, members of national parliaments, NGOs’ representatives, opinion makers, have debated the key role of civil societies in educating to respect human rights, pacific coexistence and minorities’ rights. To face this challenge the international community must engage in promoting tolerance and religious dialogue through education and the involvement of civil society. Among them, AVSI presented the experience of dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Dadaab, Kenya.
Therefore the representatives of more than 40 NGOs and Associations from different parts of the world, inspired by different religions and beliefs, made a strong call for increasing the number of projects focused on education to religious tolerance and promotion of freedom of religion or belief.
A strong focus on the human rights security dimension has been advocated by the UN senior representatives. The role of civil society in preventing and defusing conflicts caused by religious differences with educational tools was stressed. The civil society can play a substantial task in neutralizing the intolerant message disseminated by fundamentalists through campaigns and projects to teach respect for the views and culture of the others.
During the first of two panels “The best practices of Governments and Civil Society related to education and training programs as a tool for promotion and guarantee of religious freedom, religious and interfaith dialogue”, moderated by Monica Willard, President of the NGOs’ Religious Committee to the United Nations and Representative of the NGO “United Religions Initiative”, NGO’s representatives, introducing examples of best practices, have drawn attention to the importance of educational and training programs, where spreading the values of tolerance and respect for the religious identity of each person and community has to be always present.
Among the speakers, Deogracious Adrawa Droma, teacher from the Permanent Center for Education (PCE) of Kampala, Uganda, presented his experience in the refugee camps in the Dadaab area of north-eastern Kenya, where AVSI offers teacher training.
In a context where the majority of the population (around 98%) is Muslim, Deogracious, whose background and identity are strongly rooted in Christian tradition, has accepted the challenge of his educational work as an opportunity to find out more about himself and the others.  
According to Deogracious’ experience: “The human heart is one and same, full of the  deepest questions and needs. The comparison with the workshop participants rested on the desires for the good, the beauty and the truth and has become a point of unity and a starting point for dialogue. Religion, culture and any other human attempt are only a means to reaching these needs and therefore not an obstacle to the relationship or dialogue with those of another faith”.
The proposal which AVSI and the PCE bring to the Somali Muslims living in Dadaab does not cancel out or ignore religious differences, but instead gives value to what’s behind the faith tradition. It pierces to the heart of the human person, to what is common in all of us, with the certainty that from this starting point something beautiful and lasting can be built.
Sarah Sayeed, Director of the NGO Interfaith Center, participated in the same panel and related her experience of dialogue in Staten Island, a borough of New York with a high density of families of policemen and firemen,  where many Catholic parents have lost their relatives in the collapse of the Twin Towers and so didn’t wanted their children participate in the NGO’s initiatives as  carried out together with Islamic Centers. “But young people insisted and in a few months the whole community, including adults, was working together, raising money and cooking meals, to solve a common problem: the homeless and the hunger is Staten Island”.
Relying on youth is a well-known strategy also for the other panelist Jafar Jaward of the Iraqui Foundation Al-Hakim, which aims to go beyond the mere tolerance of religious minorities in the country and promote mutual understanding and respect. He said “We must start from youth and do it publicly, creating the pride of the dialogue. But young people needs models, so we organize common events, such as the day for the elimination of violence against women or  the one on human rights, and invite leaders of different religious communities as well as many students. If the community realizes such a cooperation, the extremists will be refused and will have to act in secret in order to hide the shame on their faces”.
Yahya Pallavicini, of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, presented three successful models of inter-religious dialogue in Italy and French which witness how labour, finance, trade and international relations can once again become tools leading to success and allowing for positive intercultural relations if communities and people are capable of recovering the traditional values of solidarity, subsidiarity and sustainability, avoiding individualism and ‘virtualism’. She said “In 2009, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso invited me, as Vice President of the Italian Islamic Religious Community (COREIS), to join other European religious leaders at a meeting on the contribution of ethics in the governance of the financial and economic crisis. This meeting was the starting point of a new Italian Islamic Religious Community working group that produced a comment on the third chapter of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate entitled ‘Fraternity, Economic Development and Civil Society’.”
In the second panel “Current and future challenges to the International Community regarding freedom of religion or belief and the protection of religious minorities” experts analyzed the current international situation. It was stressed that education and training promoted by the civil society in this field is the most important tool that Governments can sustain to promote religious freedom.

AVSI attended this side event at the United Nations on the day of its 40th anniversary. AVSI was founded on September 27th , 1972, by a group of friends  united and motivated by a drive to share their own humanity. Today AVSI carries on its commitment in promoting human dignity through development cooperation activities all around the world, mainly focused on education.