By Tony Blair
Faith matters. Even if you are not of religious faith yourself. Over 4 billion people world-wide recognize themselves as religious. They may not attend an organized place of worship. But Faith plays a part in their lives. A recent poll found that religion is important for around 30-35% of people in Europe, 65% of Americans and for about 90% of people in most Muslim-majority countries.
I started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation because I believe the modern world cannot work unless people from different faiths and cultures learn to live in peaceful co-existence with each other. Understanding increases the possibility of peace. Ignorance increases the potential for division.
The reason this is so important today is that globalization is shrinking the space we live in, making us share it, pushing people together in a way that is unique in human history. Some dislike this process. Some, like me, are content and even welcome it. But, for sure, it is a fact.
In this world, if religious faith becomes a counter force to this process, one which pulls people apart, then it becomes reactionary and divisive. So if I define myself as a Christian in opposition to you as a Muslim, then just as we are forced to live together by globalization, so we are forced apart by a view of religious faith that is exclusionary and hostile to those of a different faith to our own.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation works in a number of ways to prevent this happening. One way is an inter-faith encounter through action, which is why we are supporting the UN anti-malaria campaign, to mobilize the faith communities to become centres of distribution for bed nets and medicines in Africa. We work also for reconciliation where religion is a dimension in political conflict, as in the Middle East. A key part of our work is education. In partnership with Yale University in the United States we now have a “Faith and Globalization” course which began last year. This is now being extended to four other universities world-wide.
Now we are adding a new dimension: an education program linking up schools across the globe and across the faith divide. Launching officially today is Face to Faith, the new global schools project from my Foundation, designed to encourage young people of different faiths to learn directly with, from and about each other. Through structured video-conferencing, an online community and a course syllabus, Face to Faith gets secondary school students from across the world working together, investigating big global issues; sharing their own opinions, values and beliefs; and exploring the reasons for similar and different views. In this way, Face to Faith encourages young people to recognize the similarities between faiths but also, importantly, to respect and deal with the differences between diverse and often conflicting worldviews, helping to equip them to live in a global society made up of different faiths and beliefs.
Developed by an international group of educational experts and piloted with more than 1000 students on three continents, Face to Faith encourages young people to research what different faiths have to say about key global issues. The program supports them to explore the doctrines, practices and stories of major world religions; and, importantly, to understand the role of faith in the lives of others. How do their peers – believers and nonbelievers – feel and think, and think about what others assume about them?
Young people involved in the pilot are already reporting how their understanding of the role of faith in today’s world has increased by learning from those of differing social, cultural and religious perspectives. A student from Indian Heights School in New Delhi commented; ‘It’s so much more interesting and real to learn directly from people of a different religion rather than simply reading about them in a book.’
I am particularly impressed by the way our lead school in the US, St Thomas the Apostle, has taken up the challenge. Christina Teisch, Principal at St. Thomas the Apostle, has been an early pioneer of the program, and her pupils have responded superbly. St. Thomas the Apostle’s engagement in Face to Faith is a testament to the way in which the US has embraced the concepts of a globalized world and the way in which people of different faiths must live within it. They have been a valuable leader in the development of this program. Christina says,
‘For centuries, the aggression of our global societies have been threatened by religious conflicts. In no other way can we as educators guide our students towards peace than through dialogue, understanding and respect of all faiths on earth. My experience of the Face to Faith program has already given me invaluable knowledge of the challenges and triumphs of educators from various countries.’
Already, schools in Pakistan, India, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the UK, US and Canada have taken up the Face to Faith program and some interesting offshoots are emerging. Two schools in Canada and Palestine are extending the program, originally designed for 11-16 year olds, by arranging video conference discussions between groups of parents and grandparents interested in improving their own understanding of different faiths. And these adults are not the only ones. One of the Lebanese teachers involved in the program commented; ‘One of the highlights of Face to Faith is the regular exchange with the other teachers of different faiths who have already taught me so much about different practices and perspectives.’
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is dedicated to achieving understanding, action and reconciliation between the different faiths for the common good. It is not about the faith that looks inward; but the faith that resolutely turns us towards each other. The new program I am launching today, Face to Faith, has started a global conversation about and between different religions; a true conversation between people despite differences. An increase in religious literacy must surely follow and, with it, a new generation committed to interfaith understanding and respect.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. For more information go to www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.