Education Ministry says no place for proselytizing in schools

–describes visits by Faithful World Church as offensive

Having issued a circular to all public schools on the need for strict adherence to the policy which requires permission from the Ministry of Education before persons are allowed in to conduct activities, the ministry said it was in the process of establishing clear guidelines that would avert any future incidence of hate groups being allowed to “evangelize” in public schools.

Finally breaking its silence, the Ministry of Education issued a response yesterday to the controversial issue, three weeks after reports hit the media of a religious body being allowed to share its doctrine in public educational institutions.

The statement came a day after the Hindu community made a public call for public schools to be off-limits to missionaries, and accused the Ministry of Education of facilitating school visits by designated hate group Faithful Word Baptist Church, pastored by Steven Anderson.

Steven Anderson

In a press statement, the ministry verified that several actions have already been taken on the matter, including the launch of an investigation, and prior to that, the release of a circular to all principals and head teachers of nursery, primary and secondary schools outlining the need for “strict adherence” to policy.

The ministry offered apologies for the lateness of its response on the subject, stating that a “thorough investigation was warranted and took time considering the initial lack of information on the scope of the incident.”

According to the release, the ministry was aware of the matter even before it was publicized in the media, as Minister Dr Rupert Roopnaraine had been made aware of it on March 16, by Cultural Policy Advisor Ruel Johnson. The first letter regarding the issue titled “Who gave an American missionary permission to preach in Georgetown schools?” by Sherlina Nageer, was published in the March 21 issue of the Stabroek News.

The investigations, it was stated, determined that three public schools were visited by the missionaries of the Faithful Word Baptist Church, although reports suggested that the number might be larger.

It said that it was “determined that in each case, permission was granted via the individual school administration without sanction from the Ministry.  The Department of Education had no previous knowledge of the school visits by FWBC, nor did it anyway facilitate the visits.  The church took advantage of a lack of familiarity with regard to documented external visitor policy and the misplaced goodwill of administrative staff on what they believed to be an innocuous intervention, as well as a general ignorance of the church’s reputation. “

The ministry noted that regardless of the steps taken, three critical issues had been brought to the forefront: the separation of church and state, the constitutionally mandated right of students within the public education system to not be subject to religious instruction without consent and cultural equity in the state machinery.

“Whatever the context, this incident was unfortunate as it was offensive. There is absolutely no place for proselytizing—whether supposedly benign or overtly extremist—in the public education sector,” the release read.

It was further stated that the ministry is committed to its mandate to establish clear guidelines for the avoidance of future incidents of a similar nature, and named the Constitution of Guyana, which it noted “guarantees freedom from religious instruction within the public education system;” the National Cultural Policy (currently in its draft phase), which “speaks explicitly to the issue of respect for all religions and the equitable inclusion of the concerns of the religious community;” and the revised Education Bill, which will “take into account constitutional stipulations on religion in the education system” as the basis for the development of these guidelines.

It added that all administrative staff involved were reprimanded for the lapse.

Grave concern
In a full page ad placed in yesterday’s edition of the Stabroek News, 14 Hindu organisations representing 108 temples expressed “grave concern” over access given to the leader of the church, Pastor Steven Anderson to preach and proselytize so as to “win souls for Christ.”

Among the signatories were the Guyana Sevashram Sangh, the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, the Viraat Sabha, the Guyana Central Arya Samaj, the Guyana Pandits’ Council, the Guyana Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and the Mahatma Gandhi Organisation.

The groups noted that Anderson’s views are “extreme and hateful” against women, gays and people of other faith. They specifically expressed concern over the pastor’s “subtle and overt” attacks on Hindus and Hinduism and reflected on the emotional hurt and psychological damage done to Hindu students who had to endure his “tirade against their faith”.

The organisations questioned why Anderson, a man of such notoriously reprehensible views, was invited into so many of the country’s schools. The pastor claimed to have visited St Rose’s High School, North Georgetown Secondary School, Central High School and Queen’s College. Stabroek News understands that while the missionaries were seen in the Queen’s College compound they never approached the administration and were never given an opportunity to address the students.

Chief Education Officer Marcel Hutson had previously confirmed to this newspaper that the Ministry had dealt with the issue of students being subjected to preaching from religious leaders within a school setting. Hutson, however, would not divulge details on exactly how the matter was handled.

Nageer, in her letter to this newspaper, expressed concern over the content of a video she had seen featuring a missionary from the Faithful Word Baptist Church preaching “fire and brimstone in a public secondary school.”

The heart of the matter, she believed, was that Guyana being a secular state, and multicultural in identity, space for preaching should not exist in such a forum.

The school named in the particular incident referenced by Nageer was the Central High School. A week after her letter would have been published, the Headmistress of Central High responded by labelling critics as “narrow-minded”.

The Head Teacher, Kamlawattie Balroop, told Stabroek News that she had seen nothing wrong with the interaction with the missionaries, whom she believed to be a positive influence for the batch of students, the majority of which she related are Christian.

Balroop, who identified as Hindu, said that the missionaries were granted permission to speak at the assembly following a brief meeting with school officials, stating that she would have done the same for any other religious group.

While she admitted that the accepted protocol is for organisations entering schools to first gain permission from the ministry, she said it was sometimes the case that they are allowed the chance to speak during the assembly time, at the discretion of school officials.

A source within the public school system related that around 2007 it was communicated to teachers and head teachers verbally that organisations and individuals seeking audience at public schools must first present an authoritative letter from the ministry. Though this request was not documented in writing, it became accepted as protocol.