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First Amendment column: To stop the madness, put a face to faith

7:45 PM, Sep. 10, 2013  |  Comments
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No quick fix - diplomatic or military - will dissolve the centuries of distrust and rivalry that fuel the sectarian conflict in Syria, where Alawites and Shiites are pitted against Sunnis with Christians caught in the crossfire.

The same can be said of the many other religious and ethnic wars raging around the globe.

In the past week alone, Buddhists burned Muslim shops and homes in Burma, a Muslim mob stormed a Coptic church in Egypt, and radical Sunni Muslims attacked minority Shiite Muslims in central Pakistan.

Americans may be tempted to see religious violence as someone else's problem, living as we do in country blessedly free of holy wars for much of our history (thanks, in large measure, to the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment).

But our angry culture wars, while rarely violent, are warning signs that no society is immune from the pernicious effects of religious division and intolerance. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate crimes motivated by religious bias are all found in the United States today.

Humanity faces many daunting challenges in the 21st century. But none is greater - or more urgent - than the challenge of negotiating new ways to live with our religious and ethnic differences.

That brings me to the good news this week. While the world debates how to respond to the latest atrocity in Syria, some 800 schools in 20 countries are taking the long view by preparing the next generation to do better.

These schools, including 100 in the United States, are part of an initiative called "Face to Faith" that is offered free to schools by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. (Disclosure: I serve as U.S. adviser to the program.) www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org.

Face to Faith is a simple, but profound, approach to dispelling stereotypes and creating understanding across religious differences. Through videoconferencing and secure online community, students engage one another directly in civil, but robust, dialogue about issues of faith and belief that matter to them.

It works.

Students in Indian schools, for example, are connecting to students in Pakistani schools - an extraordinary development in a region long plagued by inter-religious animosity and violence.

Through direct engagement, students are able to put a human face on the "other" and build bridges of understanding across religious and cultural divides.

As one high school student in Utah put it, "the opportunity to participate in this program has blown all the misconceptions that I had out of the water and caused me to try harder to understand people from all places and circumstances."

Although Face to Faith is in only 100 American schools thus far, plans are underway to expand that number to 1,000 public and private American schools over the next several years.

In a world torn by sectarian violence and hate, the success of Face to Faith is a reminder that we can - and must - do much more to help young people experience our common humanity.

"Even though religions don't have the same laws, beliefs and concepts," said a student from New York, "Face to Faith has taught me that people hundreds of miles away are going through the same experiences as me."

Reading and math are important. But even more important are the kinds of human beings that read the books and do the math. Learning to respect one another across our deepest differences is the real work of education.

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