Master of Ceremonies, Reverend Ronald McGarrell
Vice President Sydney Allicock
Minister of Social Cohesion, Honourable Amna Ally
Minister of Natural Resources, Honourable Raphael Trotman
Ministers of the Government
Members of the National Assembly,
Members of the diplomatic corps,
Representative of the United Nations, Mr. Reuben Robertson
Members of the religious community
Members of the civil society
Members of the media
I am very grateful for the opportunity to address this symposium this morning and our country Guyana, as you know, stands four-square in favour of the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution of the 20th October, 2010 and that resolution as you’ve heard before, encourages “…all states to support on a voluntary basis, the spread of interfaith harmony and goodwill”. That resolution proclaims also that in the first week of February every year we should observe ‘World Interfaith Harmony Week’ so here we are on the first of February observing World Interfaith Harmony Week.
Guyana informs also, its support for the injunction expressed in the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations that recognizes the need for all countries and I quote again “….to practise tolerance and to live together in peace with one another as good neighbours and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” We are pleased, therefore, to be associated with observance and the events which will follow during this week. But, we are here not as a formalistic observance of yet another day of something or the other; we are here as a functional fulfilment of the purpose of Government and that purpose is to foster the creation of happy homes and harmonious communities and thereby provide a good life for all Guyanese.
The United Nations resolution of 2010, I suspect, might have had its origins in the Holy Bible and although Honourable Raphael Trotman has made reference to one part of the Bible; I would make reference to another part in which Jesus explains his parable and that part is taken from the book of Luke. I quote:
And behold, a certain lawyer (it had to be a lawyer, I suppose) stood up and tempted Him, (can’t stop the lawyers) saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
And he answering said, Thou shall love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou has answered right: this do and thou shall live.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
And Jesus answering said – and this is the parable – A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, (this is not Guyana, this is Jericho) which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, passed by on the other side. (So we got lawyers and priests)
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, (not recommended medication, but still) and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him
And on the morrow, when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
I thought that I would quote this at length because we need to understand who our neighbour is and as was explained to you, the Jews were no friends of the Samaritans. But it was the Samaritan who was the real neighbour, the true neighbour of the man who was injured, who was wounded.
Fellow Guyanese, we cannot be a happy people, we cannot enjoy a ‘good life’ in the midst of discord, of distrust, of disharmony and social conflict. Wars, insurrections and riots abound in many parts of the world. The causes of most conflicts are varied and many of them seem to be interminable. Many of them, however, have arisen out of religious intolerance. Some countries have been partitioned, up to now, along religious lines; others are in a state of civil war, some are victims of organized transnational terrorism.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with the President of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari and he told me then over ten thousand Nigerians had been killed by religious extremists from Boko Haram, Nigeria alone. We are not talking about ten in France, or twenty in America we are talking about ten thousand in Nigeria alone. So, you see religious extremism is not something that we could ignore.
Brothers and sisters, no World Interfaith Harmony Week will resolve these disputes – and religious disputes have been going on from time immemorial and they are still with us today, so we turn to interfaith harmony, but this harmony cannot be legislated; it cannot be enforced by the state. It must arise from the volition of our religious and social leaders, some of whom are gathered here today. They must be convinced and inspired by the belief that interfaith harmony is both desirable and necessary. On the side of the Government, we believe that the state itself has a duty to support and encourage interfaith harmony.
Guyana sees interfaith harmony as an obligation not an option and we in Government see that there are three levels at which the state could support such harmony through:
In terms of legislation, Guyana is a secular state and will continue to be; the state favours no particular religion above another, but our Constitution, the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana establishes a legal framework to ensure religious freedom and tolerance and in so doing, lays the groundwork for great religious harmony.
The Constitution provides at Article 145:
“…Except with his own consent no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience and for the purposes of this Article, the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief…”
And of course, Article 145 goes on to provide for religious communities not to be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.
At Article 149, we learn that
(a) “no law shall make any provision that is discriminatory, either of itself or in its effect; and
(b) “no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any person acting by virtue of any written law or in any performance of the functions of any public office or any public authority.
So law is on the side of harmony, it’s on the side of freedom, it’s on the side of ensuring that all Guyanese can belong to a religion, can believe and should be free to practise their religious belief.
The state has become better organized to ensure interfaith harmony. In 2015, last year, we strengthened our organisational capability by creating the Ministry of Social Cohesion as you heard a few minutes ago, and by renaming the Ministry of Human Services, the Ministry of Social Protection. This shows you our concern about the social underpinning of public policy.
These two ministries emphasise our concern in resolving social differences, differences which could lead to disharmony and conflict. The Ministry of Social Cohesion in particular, is charged with responsibility to promote greater inclusiveness and participation of cultural, religious, racial, ethnic and religious groups within society. It is charged with encouraging dialogue and cooperation among faith-based organizations as we have here today. It is charged with pursuing policies that will lead to a more cohesive society, one in which there is a high degree of religious tolerance and thirdly as you heard earlier, is the need for education.
Guyana is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural state. We are proud of our diversity and our diversity is our strength. It is not a weakness. It is not a liability. Some persons however, seem not only to have an imperfect understanding of their own religion, a religion which proscribes hatred or murder, for example, but sometimes it is astonishing to see people calling out the name of God as they go about killing other people; but ignorance may predispose persons to demonize other groups that they understand even less than their own religion.
Many persons in the Caribbean, in Guyana are unaware of the existence of some other faiths, for example in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni there is a faith called the Hallelujah faith in Guyana and if you go to some parts of the Upper Mazaruni you will be able to witness adherence in the devotees of that faith.
In Haiti there is the faith called ‘voodoo’ and sometimes it is really astonishing for people to use the word voodoo as if it was a bad word; they speak about voodoo economics but they don’t understand that voodooism is a strongly held faith. Just as people believe in Christianity, people believe in voodoo. In Cuba there is Santeria, in Trinidad and Tobago there is Shango and in Brazil you find other faiths, many of them based on traditional African beliefs, which came across the ocean at the time of African enslavement. But devotees of these faiths (and of course, I include the Rastafari among us) are sometimes ignored but even when they are not ignored they are discriminated against. Here we need education. I remember there was a time when policemen took a joy in cutting off the locks of Rastafarians and we need to educate our citizens better.
So, my brothers and sisters, we have a proud record of religious freedom but we must use occasions such as this to enhance that freedom. We protect the right of every person to his or her religious beliefs. We must ensure that persons should not be prevented from taking part in their own religious and cultural observances, even if those observances are not in accord with their own. We have a record, a reputation for religious tolerance. In our churches, in our mandirs, in our masjids, in our temples, in many communities you would see these buildings standing side by side without conflict. Even at my age I’ve never experienced a religious riot in Guyana and thank God we’ve been spared the agonies of religious fratricide, which afflicted many other countries.
Interfaith harmony therefore, should not be restricted to mere dialogue. Dialogue such as it is must promote greater understanding and trust which, in turn, are the bases for increased tolerance; but tolerance is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Guyana needs to move to a higher level, we need to graduate from tolerance to acceptance; we need to convert to higher levels of religious tolerance so that we understand and accept each other despite the differences.
There must be respect based on the degree to which persons of other faiths enjoy a sense of belonging, in which they are treated as equals, and which they identify as such within society. The state, religious organizations and civil society must work together in harmony if Guyana is to build a truly harmonious society.
We must build on the levels of trust that exist, we must intensify cooperation and we must move beyond the promotion of tolerance towards mutual acceptance and as has been spoken of before we come to the word ‘jubilee.’ Jubilee actually comes from a Jewish word. It refers in Jewish history to the celebration of the year of emancipation and restoration every fifty years and that is why this year, the fiftieth anniversary of our emancipation from the colonial domination, we celebrate it as our jubilee, a golden jubilee.
Our nation was born broken. The greatest gifts that our people can present to themselves on this jubilee, is the gift of harmony. It will be a gift to posterity, for Guyanese to finally overcome the hostility and the divisiveness under which we were born. We should replace that hostility with harmony and national unity.
This year we have a golden opportunity to make this happen. Let us not drop the ball, let us not lose the momentum, and let Interfaith Harmony Week 2016, as Pastor McGarrell said, “Go beyond just a week. Let the next fifty years be an era of harmony and trust in our country.”
May God bless you all!
I thank you.