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Q&A: ''Failing to Act For the Benefit of Children Is a Crime''

Interview with Samuel Koo, diplomat and top GNRC organiser

HIROSHIMA, Japan, May 25 2008 (IPS) - The world's religions are poised to step out of their 'comfort zones' to heed the feeblest of voices – those of children. Under the aegis of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), these religious institutions are learning to set aside differences and work together for the sake of 2.2 billion children around the world.

Samuel Koo, GNRC Third Forum organising committee chair and South Korea's cultural cooperation Ambassador.  Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

Samuel Koo, GNRC Third Forum organising committee chair and South Korea's cultural cooperation Ambassador. Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

Established in 2000 in Japan by Rev. Keishi Miyamoto, head of the Arigatou Foundation, the GNRC is the only worldwide interfaith network ‘exclusively dedicated to securing the rights and well-being of children and young people everywhere’. Its Third Forum, being held in Hiroshima, May 24-26, is aimed at renewing the commitment of GNRC members and think of new approaches to meet its goal of eradicating violence, poverty and environmental degradation, all of which spell trouble and suffering for children.

For GNRC Third Forum’s organising committee chair and South Korea Cultural Cooperation Ambassador, Samuel Koo, the GNRC's progress has been commendable. "Our intention is to expand this network to strengthen collaboration with like-minded NGOs and international organisations," the former journalist told IPS correspondent Lynette Lee Corporal in a one-on- one interview.

IPS: Until the second forum held four years earlier, GNRC was mainly a gathering of faith-based organisations. How is the Third Forum different?

Sam Koo: Beginning with the Third Forum we've started attracting senior people from international organisations, politicians, some artists and corporate people. Our aim is to bring people together. Even if only a fifth of people begin to see things differently, then our job will have been done.

IPS: There is a general view that governments are not doing enough vis-a-vis GNRC's goal for children. What are your thoughts about this?

SK: I don't think it's just the governments. I think nobody is doing enough, whether it's the government, NGOs, religious organisations or civic groups. Everybody needs to do more, there's no question about that.

Why are faith-based communities important? We all know the pervasive influence these spiritual leaders in local communities wield. A lot of people depend on them and look to them for guidance so they are natural partners in poverty alleviation programmes, in efforts to safeguard the planet, and to stem violence of all kinds, starting with domestic violence, conflict resolutions and post-conflict reconciliation. So the role of religion and spiritual leaders is vital. It cuts both ways because it is also true that, in some cases, they're the ones who are fomenting discord and conflict among communities.

IPS: What is not being done at the government level regarding children's protection and rights?

There are two areas in which many governments are failing. One is in providing an enlightened and farsighted leadership especially regarding poverty alleviation and environmental protection. I think it's a policy issue. The second area is the availability of resources or the lack of it.

IPS: Do you think adults have failed in their roles as models and protectors of children?

SK: No question about it. You've heard the stock statistics that have been thrown out in the course of this conference and in other fora. We know the facts. Forget the conflict situations, just think about the 30,000 children who die every day largely from preventable causes. In my judgment and that of many people, this constitutes a crime.

IPS: Many observers believe that religion has become a forum for political thinking. How can we take politics out of religion?

SK: I don't think it's possible, especially in certain places where there is a state religion. I know there should be a separation of church and state but, still, you can't delineate the way people think. Values are born through religious beliefs and they are practiced in daily life, and politics is part of that. As long as we practice religion in a healthy manner and learn how to live together harmoniously, I don't think it matters. Politics and religion only become a problem when people start practicing exclusionist games.

IPS: How can we protect children from the stark reality of armed conflict using ethics education?

SK: Two thoughts come to mind. One is that education, of course, is a cure- all, especially ethics education. But this takes time, and even if it does, it is important because we've learned in the process. It's not a time-bound enterprise. The other matter is that these armed conflicts have such diverse causes ranging from ethnic to territorial, some with religious overtones, to name a few. It is about the adults' greed, hatred and misunderstanding. GNRC clearly has a lot of things to do in this area. We have to ensure that, even if there is a conflict or an unavoidable outbreak of violence, we will try to ensure that women and children are protected with the extent possible. Any conflict does cause damage and inevitably results in the loss of lives and lasting scars in children's minds.

IPS: What is the GNRC's response to abuses to children done by the members of the clergy? Is this issue being addressed by the organisation?

SK: I think Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to the United States, made the point very clear. This is not confined to Catholic priests, it's across the board. It is an abhorrent crime and as such should be dealt with severely according to law. At the same time, it is extremely unfortunate because they are exactly the ones who have to set examples.

Those who commit this sort of thing only comprise a small number but because they are clerics and religious leaders, one becomes 'too many'. This makes for such a grave transgression. But I think society has come to terms to dealing with this issue.

IPS: How difficult is it to reach out to fundamentalist religious groups?

SK: A lot of people seem to equate fundamentalism with Islam. I disagree strongly because there are Christian and probably Buddhist fundamentalists as well. People seem to take their own scriptures in a literal sense. I have Christian friends who, without their realising it, by becoming devout practitioners, have become fundamentalists. Because, if one believes in his own religion's truth solely, and that everybody else is in sin, then that is fundamentalism.

IPS: We're living in a 'wired' age. The forum has seen the launch of an ethics education manual for educators and youth leaders, ‘Learning to Live Together: An Intercultural and Interfaith Programme for Ethics Education’. How is the GNRC going to maximise the world wide web in pushing for its goals and reaching out to more children?

SK: I think we've been sort of a normal organisation so far, having this website and email exchanges. But with the introduction of the ethics education toolkit, 'Learning to Live Together', I think we have to sharply upgrade because we're not going to make available 10 million copies of it. It will all be distributed via the Internet in various languages. So we do intend to introduce not only new sites but also improve on the current so that it becomes more interactive and more user-friendly.

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