People in multi-religious societies 'must be equal'

PEOPLE living in multi-religious societies must all be considered as equal citizens and given the legal right to hold diverse ethical and religious views, said the Anglican Archbishop of Egypt, Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, yesterday.

Only then can the cultural foundations be built for strong interreligious ties, he said at the end of a two-day seminar on inter-religious relations in plural societies.

He warned that there could be a tendency for different ethnic and religious groups simply to tolerate the presence of each other but not to engage and work together for the common good of society.

"In such cases, tolerance replaces both harmony and celebrating diversity," he told his audience of 450 at the Marina Mandarin Singapore.

The seminar inaugurated the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP).

Located at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the new programme will study how religious communities develop their teachings in multi- religious societies.

Archbishop Mouneer, 64, who looks after the Anglicans in Egypt, North Africa, Jerusalem and the Middle East, gave two examples of inter-religious work in Egypt.

One is the partnership between the Anglican Church and the Misr el Kheir Foundation, set up in 2007 by the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheik Ali Gomaa.

The foundation provides education, health services and programmes to promote the arts to people of any faith.

Although an Islamic body, the foundation works with the Harpur Memorial Hospital, set up by the Anglican Church in 1910, to provide free services such as paediatrics, gynaecology and surgery.

The second project, the Arkan cultural centre in Alexandria set up by the Anglican Church, offers a place for artistically talented Muslim and non-Muslim youth to study acting, photography or calligraphy.

Said the Archbishop: "As the lives of youth from many different backgrounds intersect, we see bridges of peace and friendship gradually replace walls of intolerance and fear."

The Archbishop and Sheikh Gomaa, who also spoke at the seminar on Monday, have agreed to join a new SRP international advisory panel.

The invitation to the two leaders to speak at the seminar and join the panel is part of ongoing efforts by the RSIS think-tank to support renowned religious scholars who can counter the narratives of extremists, said Mr Mohammad Alami Musa, who heads the SRP.

Speakers from the Buddhist and Taoist faiths yesterday highlighted the need for people of different faiths to do more to learn about the religious beliefs of others.

Master Chung Kwang Tong, secretary-general of the Taoist Federation Youth Group, said one can rise above the average person if one can embrace and accept the beliefs of others.

"I understand Taoism better when I learn from other religious teachings," he said.

Buddhist leader Venerable Chuan Guan said Buddhism does not subscribe to the belief that there is a Creator.

"But we are pretty okay with people who have this belief," he said.

Responding to the speakers' views, Mr Ding Shi Ren, 47, a Muslim academic from China, said: "What the speakers have highlighted is easy to say but difficult to practise.

"But the seeds need to be planted and we must give them time to grow."


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