Letting Religions Unite - Rather Than Divide

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New Delhi, Feb 15 (UNI) Dubbing religious disputes ''bitter relics of the past,'' law experts from around the world set out to delve into religious texts ''which can bring us together.'' ''Let's get back to the purity of religion,'' Law and Justice Minister Hansraj Bhardwaj urged an International Conference on State, Religion and Law in and Beyond South Asia: Comparative Perspectives.

''Every society has a religion,'' said Bhardwaj, inaugurating the three-day event last evening. ''All religions say the same thing.'' But he pointed to strife resulting from pursuit of distortions rather than pure religion and warned of a catastrophe if corrective is not applied.

The meet organised by Law Commission Member Tahir Mahmood is sponsored by New Delhi-based Indian Association of Scholars of Religion and Law and Amity Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

The co-sponsors include Germany-based Institute for European Constitutional Law at Trier University, Italy-based Milano University and United States-based International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Brigham Young University at Utah.

The speakers included Malaysia's Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad, Prof Silvio Ferrari of Milano University, Prof W Cole Durham from Brigham Young University.

Malaysia's Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad, who was chief guest, described the place of Islam in his country, saying ''Islam is everywhere and in everything in Malaysia.'' He cited how Islamic education is compulsory to Muslim students in national schools and Islamic celebrations-- Prophet Muhammad's birthday, onset of Muslim calendar year, end of Ramadan-- are held by the government.

The call for prayer, for instance, is aired even in offices and religious talks are held in offices even during office hours, Justice Mohamad said.

But he said the Malaysian government also provides financial and other assistance for building houses of worship for other religions. Deepavali, Thaipusam, Wesak Day, Chinese New Year and Christmas are public holidays, on which the government sponsors celebrations, he said.

Giving an example of jurisprudence at work, Justice Mohamad described how a school regulation prohibiting turban brought a challenge from three Malay Muslim students. The Court concluded that the prohibition was not unconstitutional.

''That was the pragmatic approach that I took otherwise there would be chaos: the army and the police would not be able to have uniforms, air traffic control tower would have to close during Friday prayer where no non-muslim or female operators are available, operations by Muslim doctors will have to be adjourned when they exceed the prayer period.'' Prof Mahmood spoke about two different models of religion state relations pursued in South Asia-- India's unique concept of secularism'' and elsewhere ''one or another chosen faith'' holding the status of State religion.

Thus, he pointed out, Buddhism is the State religion in Bhutan and Sri Lanka, Hinduism in Nepal and Islam in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan.

''I am not claiming that either of the two South Asian models of religion-state relations is ideal: nor that the constitutional norms on religious equality and liberty of citizens are being faithfully implemented either in India or in any other country of South Asia.'' Prof Mahmood regretted ''aberrations and deviations'' from constitutionally established standards of religious tolerance and non-discrimination witnessed in all parts of the world-- both in the developing East and the developed West.

He called for better enforcement of a 27-year-old United Nations Declaration on Religious Tolerance and Non-Discrimination. ''The dictates of the 1981 UN Declaration...

are to be enforced everywhere with a new vigour and more effective strategies.'' Prof Mahmood cautioned against religious disputes, saying ''we cannot afford to revive them in the 21st century with its magnificent scientitifc advancement and technological excellence.'' ''There is a lot more in all religious texts which can bring us together. We have to concentrate on those refreshingly humane texts and try to come closer-- bring all our people closer.'' UNI MJ RR HS1400

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