12/22/2008, 00.00
THAILAND
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Christmas in Thailand, an occasion for interreligious dialogue in the schools

by Weena Kowitwanij
At a Catholic school in Yala, a province in the southern part of the country, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists are sharing in celebrations for Christmas. These represent a moment of encounter and of overcoming barriers, in a province where 80% of the inhabitants profess Islam.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - In Thailand, the political crisis is not sparing even the Catholic schools, which have always been in the front ranks of promoting interreligious dialogue and civil coexistence. Among the hardest hit are the schools in the south of the country, where, in addition to the clashes among the factions struggling for power, there is also the confessional element, which risks becoming a cause of further division.

In order to renew dialogue among the religions and open to all faithful the Christmas celebrations of the Christians, last December 20, Sister Nittaya Chosannuson, director of the Charoensri Suksa school in Amphoe Betong, a district in the southern province of Yala, organized a Christmas celebration in which the parents and friends of the 500 students participated. At one time, there were more than 1,000 students, but the recent political crisis has cut them in half: of the 500 who enrolled this year, 20% are Catholic, 50% are Muslim, and the remaining 30% are Buddhist, although about 80% of the population in the province of Pattani profess Islam.

"I asked everyone to come to the Christmas celebrations," says Sister Nittaya, of the congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, "in order to permit them to participate in our activities. Through singing and music, I want to share with students and families the spirit of Christmas, to speak of Jesus Christ without demanding conversion. Mine is only an invitation to share in a moment of celebration."

"Every Friday," adds Pornthip Thongchai, a catechist and the head of interreligious dialogue for the school, "we hold courses in the exploration of the various faiths, during which each one recounts his own experience, the liturgy of his rite, its culture and traditions."

Thirathep Sriyapan, the newly elected governor of the province of Pattani, stresses that Christmas is "an occasion of joy and celebration for everyone, and this year as well the government will support the celebrations as has been done over the past four years. Solidarity is a fundamental element."

Founded on June 26, 1969, the diocese of Surat Thani embraces 15 southern provinces, including Pattani, Naratjiwat, and Yala. There are 7,419 Catholics, out of a total of 8,912,384 inhabitants. There are 44 priests, three consecrated lay people, and 104 sisters.

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