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In a world of sectarian violence, what can be done?

Published on -7/27/2014, 4:53 PM

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Last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- the extremist movement now occupying large swaths of territory in the region -- forced the last Christians out of the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Images of desecrated churches, looted homes and ruined lives now serve as the obituary for one of the world's oldest Christian communities.

If the world barely noticed, it's not surprising. The fate of Christians in Mosul is only one of many competing news stories of religious and ethnic violence across the globe, from northern Africa to the Middle East to the Ukraine.

Tragically, people in many parts of the world are drowning in rivers of blood shed in the name of one ethnic or religious group against another. Even where religious communities have peacefully co-existed for years -- Christians and Muslims in Africa, for example -- the lid is off and the knives are out.

The causes of the current worldwide epidemic in sectarian violence are complex, with each region plagued by a volatile mix of religious, ethnic, economic and political differences with deep historical roots.

"Religion" is often the trigger -- or the excuse -- for power struggles that have less to do with faith and more to do with national or tribal identify and political power.

Consider Myanmar (Burma) where the Buddhism of the majority is so defined by national identity that it spawns hatred for the Rohingya Muslim minority -- in clear contradiction to traditional Buddhist teachings. Muslims are condemned by extremist Buddhist monks as strangers in their own land, aliens who must be attacked and driven out.

As a result, Rohingya Muslims -- who claim to be indigenous to Myanmar -- are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. During the past two years, more than 100,000 Rohingyas have been forced to flee Myanmar and many thousands more have been put in camps with no access to basic services such as health care, clean water or sanitation.

Similar perversions of religion fuel "religious" conflicts in many other places, including Nigeria, where terrorists kidnap children and murder innocents "in the name of Islam" and the Central African Republic, where "Christian" militias butcher Muslims "in the name of Christ."

What makes many of these conflicts so intractable is, in a word, indoctrination. Young people in far too many places are taught to hate and fear the "other," passing ancient divisions rooted in religious and ethnic identities from one generation to the next.

From textbooks in Saudi Arabia that disparage Jews to training camps of terror in Yemen, young minds are prepared to continue the battle -- often in the name of one religion over another.

But for the long term, the best answer to schools of hate and violence are schools of respect and understanding -- schools where students learn how to engage people of different religions and beliefs with civility and respect.

One avenue to creating such schools is Face to Faith, an education program offered free to schools by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Now active in more than 30 countries -- including nearly 200 public and private schools in the United States -- Face to Faith uses videoconferencing and secure online community to connect students directly with their peers in classrooms across the world. (Disclosure: I serve as advisor to Face to Faith in the U.S.)

Launched just five years ago, Face to Faith already has engaged more than 60,000 students in civil dialogues that range from exchanges about personal values and beliefs to discussions of global issues of shared concern. The aim is not only to educate young people about religions and cultures, but also to inspire them to work together for the common good. (www.facetofaithus.org)

Schools implementing Face to Faith are on the front lines in the ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the next generation. When students are able to build bridges of trust and understanding, they're better prepared to resist voices of hate and violence.

Face to Faith won't stop the rivers of blood overnight. But it's a very good start.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. chaynes@newseum.org

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