The Religious Liberty Commission of the NCEASL, in its monitoring and documentation of the incidents of intimidation and violence against Christians, have come across discriminative practises in the education sector.
These practices ranged from, school admissions being refused on the basis of religion; to penalty or punishment for the non-observance of religious rituals or practices that was not according to the student’s belief.
Such forms of harassment and discrimination continue despite the freedom to practice and observe ones faith guaranteed in the Sri Lankan constitution and other legal provisions. Such rights have been guaranteed namely in the Education Ordinance of 1939 and Article 14 (i) (e) of the Sri Lankan constitution that states that one should have the freedom “…either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching”. This has been further reiterated in a Circular issued by the Ministry of Education that requires all schools that were managed by religious organizations prior to the takeover by the State during the period of 1960-1961, to maintain the percentage of the religious ratio which was present at the time of takeover.
Despite strong laws to ensure that students in Sri Lanka enjoy their right to the freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) the implementation of these laws have been weak and over looked.
35-year-old P. Suhunakumari, from Ampara is one among a group of approximately 30, who are teaching Christianity in schools around Sri Lanka, working towards making a dent in this situation. “Since I joined in 2008 the school has seen immense progress, the Christian students who didn’t have a teacher to instruct them are now given the opportunity to have their own assembly and a time of prayers once a week”.
Suhunakumari shared her story with us at the Teachers Training Conference organized by the Religious Liberty Commission of the NCEASL, from the 26th to the 28th of August 2014.
The Teachers Training Conference that was held in Colombo brought together 23 teachers who have been supported through the Teachers Sponsorship Programme that was initiated by the Missions and Evangelism Commission and the Religious Liberty Commission approximately 6 years ago. The support scheme was initiated for teachers who volunteer to teach Christianity in schools where there are no teachers.
The conference held was the very first of its kind. Having had supported the teachers for several years, the NCEASL felt the need to meet them directly and address some of the common problems that had emerged, while highlighting the importance of their service in the context of the escalation of incidents violating religious rights in Sri Lanka.
For many of the teachers we spoke to, it was the experience that they had as students and a personal conviction that motivated them to step up to the challenge.
23-year-old Mercy Miruthula from Vavuniya, had a longing to change the situation in the school she studied in as a child. “Even though I’m Protestant, I had to learn Roman Catholicism, because there were no teachers for the subject. I wanted to change this situation”. Mercy continues to further her training and education as a teacher.
Jebamalai Loordhusamy from the Nuwara Eliya district had a similar story to share. “… In the up country area, regardless of if they were Roman Catholics or Protestants there were no Christian teachers and there was a lack of awareness among the teachers concerning its importance”. Loordhusamy soon went onto change this situation. He has now served as a teacher in one such school for the past 8 years.
While the conference was an opportunity for the participants to network with each other while learning more about the NCEASL and the programme that was supporting them, it was also an opportunity for them to learn from external resource persons.
A forum was opened to discuss the biblical basis for teaching, the inspiration behind their work and role models in their life. The participants were also briefed on what constitutes child abuse, while being introduced to international provisions such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Several participants, who followed the Diploma course offered by the National Christian Council on Christian education, had the opportunity to hear more from representatives from the organization who oriented the group on teaching methods and requirements put forward by the Ministry of Education.
Most significant however, was the session conducted by the Religious Liberty Commission of the NCEASL, that highlighted the legal provisions and regulations that guaranteed the right a child has to learn in his or her own religion.
For Jennifer Nithyamohan, from Jaffna, vibrant and popular with her colleagues, getting the support of the staff and school board to volunteer as a Christian teacher in a Hindu school has been easy. “…I haven’t faced any opposition for the role I play in the school. In fact the school has been very supportive of my efforts”. The session conducted by the RLC, opened her to however, problems faced by students particularly in the South.
The RLC went onto highlight the importance of their role in the context of religious freedom in Sri Lanka by introducing them to the protections guaranteed through national mechanisms and obligations made to international bodies. In addition to this, examples such as the Attack on the Apostolic Church in Mannar and the attack on the Jeevana Diya Church in Meegoda that underlined religious intolerance in Sri Lanka also created greater awareness, demonstrating the extensiveness of the issue.
While encouraging volunteer teachers with basic support, the Teachers Sponsorship Program has also gone onto raise awareness on the larger issue through programmes such as this. For Jeyanthini Suvendirarajah from Mannar, with her strong Methodist background, going onto teach Christianity came naturally to her. She began to question the choice she made however, when she got married and started a family of her own. It was then that the support that she received through the NCEASL’s Teachers Programme helped her continue to serve in an area where she was most needed, without compromising the needs of her family.