Catholic Church leaders have expressed concern over the country’s new education policy, which they say imposes Islamic studies as a compulsory subject on minority students.
The Catholic bishops´ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) has demanded the government make provision for non-Muslim students to receive religious lessons in their own faith in lieu of Islamiat, which comprises courses on Islamic belief and practice.
Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha of Lahore, the commission´s chairman, and Peter Jacob, its executive secretary, expressed their concern in a press release.
“If government thinks public education is not possible without a compulsory subject of Islamic Studies and Arabic, then we are forced to demand religious education for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, etc. in their respective religions,” it said.
They issued the statement on Sept. 25, two weeks after the government announced the National Education Policy 2009. Continuing the existing policy, the new guidelines maintain Islamic studies as a compulsory subject.
“Non-Muslim children” have the option of taking ethics and moral studies instead from third grade onwards, whereas the old policy allowed this only in grades nine and 10. But this ignores a fundamental objection that the provision means nothing in practice.
Catholic educators have long maintained the textbooks used for these alternative studies are written with “a biased mindset” by Muslim writers who do not make allowances for the teachings of religions other than Islam. They thus claim Muslim teachers cannot teach ethics effectively to children from religious-minority communities.
In practice, many Christian students have chosen Islamic studies anyway. Either they want to keep their Christian identity from being known to all or they claim teachers inflate grades for Islamiat students while marking those who choose ethics harshly.
The NCJP statement raised several of these points:
“The subject of Ethics proposed in the policy is hardly a choice as an alternative for non-Muslim students. Taking this option involves several difficulties including: non-availability of text books [some are still being written] and a syllabus that has chapters on different religions, yet only presents the Islamic point of view. Moreover non-Muslim students risk their grades and isolation from the rest of the class.”
Christians have criticized the current syllabus for praising only Islamic personalities while presenting followers of other religions as infidels and depicting Christianity negatively. The commission statement regretted that no proper evaluation of the syllabus was conducted before extending it.
It also alluded to the longstanding objection that textbooks quote excessively from the Qur´an, even science texts. It raised the particular concern that minority students´ unfamiliarity with these texts could leave them open to accusations by people exploiting the country´s blasphemy laws.
According to Anjum James Paul, chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Teachers’ Association, more than half the subject matter in textbooks for the compulsory study of Urdu, the national language, is based on Islamic teachings.
“The oppressed and suppressed minority students will be forcibly taught Islamic teachings in social and physical sciences subjects as well,” the Catholic educator wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
The minority association´s letter criticized the new policy as an “Islamic Education Policy.”
The NCJP statement demanded a review of the proposed policy and action by the Supreme Court against infringement on the freedom of religion guaranteed in Pakistan´s Constitution, which “bars any religious education other than the student’s own.”
The Catholic Church has been calling for the exclusion of religious education from the school syllabus, saying this should be the responsibility of the family and community religious institutions. “We were forced to use the option of religious education as the government doesn’t seem to want to give up compulsory Islamic education,” NCJP secretary Jacob told UCA News.
Church schools teach catechism to Christian students through grade 8, since schools set their own annual exams up to that point. A government education board sets exams from grade 9 onwards and offers exams only in Islamiat or ethics, not catechism.
According to the Catholic commission, Pakistan has about 1 million non-Muslim students. The Catholic Church runs 534 schools, 53 hostels, 8 colleges, 7 technical institutes and 8 catechetical centers, according to 2008 statistics.