Kaieteur News – One of the first significant acts of the APNU+AFC when it took office was to draft a universal prayer for schools. It was a monumental mistake because the emerging prayer appears to convey the impression that it is a universal Christian prayer with little reference to the divinities of the other major religions, notably Islam and Hinduism.
This very fact has reignited the debate about the types of prayers which are said in school at major events, including the just-held presentation of examination reports for the National Grade Six Assessment. During that presentation, the universal prayer was said and this cause one Hindu religious leader to complain about the absence of Hindu and Islamic prayers during the event.
The Ministry has responded by indicating that the prayer recited at that event was the Universal Prayer which is also read in the National Assembly. But the Ministry misses the point: what was to prevent the Ministry from saying Christian, Hindu and Islamic prayers?
Surely, there could have been no harm in doing so since the event was pre-planned and arrangements could have been put in place to have the representatives of all three major religions present to say prayers. This is quite different from the situation in the National Assembly whose sittings can run for days which makes it more practical to use the Universal Prayer than for each day to have three representatives, one each from the major religious groupings, attend to say prayers.
The issue of prayers in schools is important to freedom of conscience. Children have a right to be able to be free of any form of compulsion to take an oath which is contrary to their belief. This implies, conversely, that every child should have a right to be able to say his or her prayers in school and not be subject to some universal prayer.
When the APNU+AFC drafted its Universal Prayer, it said that a number of bodies had granted approval. The then Minister of Education, Dr. Rupert Roopnarine, said that consultations with various religious bodies had begun and that he believed that the prayer would have satisfied all three of our major religious groups.
Dr. Roopnarine had made it clear that it was his intention to implement universal prayers across the public school system, arguing that the reciting of only Christian prayers in some schools may be a preference of the teachers but was not a policy of his Ministry.
Dr. Rupert Roopnarine noted that while we are a multi-religious country, we have to realise that we have multi-religious children so that whatever prayer is used in schools should not exclude any of the religions.
In a Kaieteur News article in December 2015, it was observed that several religious bodies and organisations had come in support of the plans for a universal prayer. Amongst those said to be in favour of the change are the Guyana Presbyterian Church, Guyana Teachers’ Union and the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha.
All were of the opinion that the practice has been going on for too long. In fact, this newspaper reported a senior official of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, as claiming that sections of her organisation had brought up the issue of having universal prayers in public schools with previous Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand. The official said that while promises were made, no follow up action was taken by the Ministry.
But the Ministry of Education in its release this week stated that “The Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand, during her previous stint as Education Minister had insisted that whenever a prayer is done at any function hosted by the Ministry or any of its departments, the universal prayer or a silent prayer is done with the only exception being those events held in Amerindian communities.”
While it was laudable that there is universal prayer, which was supposedly developed in consultation with religious groups, there needs to be an assessment of the extent to which this prayer hinders or limits children’s right to freedom of conscience. There equally needs to be a reevaluation of whether that prayer can be truly said to be of a universal character in the sense that it is suitable for all three of the country’s main religious groups.
There is no reason why by now the Islamic, Christians and Hindu prayers should not be recited in all schools. This would show a true commitment to multiculturalism.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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