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Theology Thursdays: Leaders Fear Atheists May Teach Religion by Trevor Oosterwyk

South Africa's religious leaders are concerned that atheists and agnostics might teach religious education in an "antagonistic" way in schools.

This is the latest twist in the controversy surrounding the government's revised policy on religion in education.

The fuss over the teaching of religion in schools resurfaced after Education Minister Kader Asmal announced that the consultation process had come to an end and that the policy would be finalised at the next council of provincial education ministers meeting in June.

Shortly after this, a group of 22 principals from schools all over the peninsula met Western Cape Premier Marthinus van Schalkwyk and Western Cape Education MEC André Gaum to register their objection to the new policy.

At the heart of their concern was that the policy would prohibit religious observance at schools, although there would still be religious education.

Dr Salie Abraham, the vice rector at the Islamic College of South Africa in Gatesville, said that they were concerned because religion was important to them and all religions should be observed.

Gaum said that he had registered his objection to the plan with Asmal. He believed that religious observance in schools should stay, and be managed by schools' governing bodies and guided by Section 7 of the South African Schools Act.

The act states: "Subject to the constitution and any applicable provincial law, religious observances may be conducted at a public school under rules issued by the governing body if such observances are conducted on an equitable basis and attendance at them by learners and members of staff is free and voluntary."

But some religious groups do not reject the planned new policy.

Father John Oliver of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative said that they were happy at the interfaith approach of the new policy to religious education.

Sheikh Faadil Abdullatief, Muslim Judicial Council spokesperson on education, said the MJC could not reject religious education completely.

However, they all expressed concern about who would be responsible for teaching religious studies under the new policy, which would seek to expose students to all the various religions in South African society without nurturing any one specific religious teaching.

Oliver asked: "Who is going to do the teaching?" He said they were concerned whether religious schools would be allowed to observe religious practices where it was appropriate and protected under the constitution.

Abdullatief said the MJC needed clarity on whether Muslim children would still be allowed to go to mosque on a Friday or whether they could still organise programmes with Muslim students on special religious days.

Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, of the Jewish Board of Deputies, confirmed that they had participated in a bosberaad with President Thabo Mbeki and handed in a written submission on their concern about who would teach religious education at schools.

"Bias is not the preserve of clergymen. Some teachers might be atheists or agnostics or live totally irreligious lives and the way they teach religion would be either flippant or antagonistic."

This article was originally published in The Cape Argus

Thursday, May 8, 2003

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