Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution of the West African country of Ghana.
But some question whether the Christian faith is being pushed on the country’s large Muslim minority in the country’s public schools.
Across Ghana, each public school day begins with an assembly where students sing the national anthem and recite Christian prayers. At Conde Estate Five in Ghana’s capital of Accra, most of the children know the prayers by heart and readily recited this one in unison: “May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the sweet fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us forever more."
Paul Krumpa, spokesman for Ghana's Ministry of Education, said they incorporate religion and morality lessons into students’ education to instill discipline in them. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Krumpa said.
In fact, many Ghanaians agree that prayer in public schools is a good thing. The problem is that these are Christian prayers in a country that’s 78 percent Christian and 18 percent Muslim.
Krumpa said he doesn’t believe a school “forces any Muslim to recite a prayer like our Father or Hail Mary, no, no.” “There's freedom of worship,” he insisted. “They allow them (Muslims) to go to Friday prayers. And, I've not heard any parent kicking against Christian prayer at the beginning of every school day.”
There are private Islamic schools throughout Ghana, but because some families live on just a few dollars a day, they cannot afford the tuition. Many are like Mariama Ishak, a Muslim parent resigned to having her children recite Christian prayers each morning.
Ishak, who speaks her native language, said through an interpreter that she’s trying “to bring her children up in the Muslim way, but when they go to school, they have to engage in prayers in the Christian way.”
“You cannot allow your ward to go to a public school and expect him or her to be brought up in the Muslim way.” So she teaches her children about Islam when they come home.
In addition to the morning prayers, most public school students in Ghana also attend Christian services once or twice a week. Eric Adulla, a senior at Conde Estate Five School, said they “go for worship on Wednesday and Friday” and that the services last about a half hour.
But Krumpa said he was not aware of the weekly services, even though most schools have the full-fledged Christian worship services listed on their posted schedules. “We can't be aware of everything that goes on in this country,” Krumpa said.
Christian church services in public schools received a lot of attention in the press in 2008 when an Islamic student fell to his death from a fourth-floor window. He reportedly was fleeing a school administrator who found him hiding in a classroom to avoid attending the service.
The Network of Muslim Youth Organizations filed a complaint that same year with the country's human rights commission, calling for a ban on mandatory religious services and prayers in public schools. The policy was not changed.
Krumpa also denied knowledge of collections being taken up from students at some schools during the weekly church services. “This issue came up last year. We have taken a decision on it. We have asked them to stop,” he said.
But he dismissed a question about whether the agency is monitoring schools to make sure the collections have stopped. “You don't expect the ministry to be monitoring the collection of offerings in schools," Krumpa said. “Every school has a supervisor, so it is up to the supervisor to ensure that the directives from the Ghana Education Services are adhered to. A teacher can be brought before a disciplinary committee.”
Student Eric Adulla says he does not always have money for the collection during church services. But because most public schools' budgets are meager, he says he has no problem giving a donation when he has it. According to Adulla, students pay the money to their teachers, who use it to buy supplies and other things for students.
Many young Muslim girls wear veils along with their brown and gold school uniforms and some don’t balk at the Christian prayers and services. “Anything they ask us to do we're supposed to do because they are the authorities,” said 13-year-old Zainbu Bunyawin. “If you do not, you will be punished or something else. Some of my friends, they always complain, but I don't care, I like school.”
On the busy streets of downtown Accra, Hashimieu Muhammed and several friends talk about religion in public schools as they take a break from their work. Muhammed, who has children in government-funded school, does not think students who are not Christians should be subjected to the morning Christian prayers and weekly worship services. “We have Christian and Islamic religions, so why put them together,” he asked. “They should be allowed to worship differently, otherwise, if they continue to do this, they are infringing on their religious rights, so I have a huge problem with this.”
Muhammed’s friend Gregory Zumabawe, a Catholic, sees the issue a bit differently. “They don't stop the Muslims students, when it is time for prayers,” Zumabawe said. “Even our leaders, when they go together in a seminar, they do things together, so there's nothing wrong with this.”
Sitting next to Zumabawe, Muhammed Salisu Kagoro said he’s not concerned about prayers and worship in school, because he teaches his children about their Muslim faith at home. What does bother him is the weekend classes they have to attend, that also include prayers. He said through an interpreter that he has only two days out of seven to make his kids “understand the Islamic religion and practice it correctly.”
So, he has decided to take his kids out of the public school.
Others say they would do the same if they could afford it. In the meantime, some Muslim parents say they will continue petitioning the government to change the policy of daily Christian prayers and weekly worship services in public schools. “It will not be right for such a policy to be changed,” Krumpa said. “Ghana is a secular country but Christian faith is very important. So if at the beginning of the day they all are assembling to say the prayers, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
And in the spirit of the peaceful nature that Ghanaians are known for, most say at the end of the day, they see each other as equals and hope to one day find a solution pleasing to all faiths.