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: 4 Feb to 10 Mar 2006
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The Penang Global Ethic Project Launch

World Religions - Universal Peace - Global Ethic
10.00am, Tuesday, 7 February 2006
....at USM ABN-AMRO Arts & Cultutal Centre, Lebuh Pantai

Press & Reviews

First published in New Sunday Times, Malaysia,
Sunday, 26 February 2006

Recognising A Living Motif of Peace
In an extraordinary scheme, George Town's "street of harmony" is being made into a symbol to foster peace through religious neighbourliness, as a pilot project to be replicated throughout the world

By Himanshu Bhatt

Within just ten minutes walk of each other, along a charming idyllic street in George Town, lie some of the oldest - and grandest - religious monuments in the country.

Lined along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling (also known by its old colonial name, Pitt Street) is Penang's oldest Christian church built in 1818, oldest Hindu Temple (founded in 1833), as well as a historic Chinese temple and Muslim mosque (both 1801).

Further up, along the adjoining Cannon Street, stands a century old complex of the Khoo Kongsi, widely considered to be the most magnificent Chinese clan temple in the region.

The precinct, a historic place where migrant people of different religions have lived for more than 200 years, has today become a powerful symbol that is drawing interest from far corners of the world.

"I have never seen anything like this before anywhere in the world," says Peter Schier, a representative of Berlin-based Konrad Adenaeur Foundation.

"I was in Kosovo some time ago. At the centre of the town is a mosque, opposite it is an Orthodox Christian Church and beside that a Roman Catholic Church.

"But they never promoted the idea of togetherness… And today these buildings have to be heavily guarded!"

For peace activists like Schier, the sight of people living so unassumingly at ease around George Town's religious places, in the very manner communities did decades ago, has proven to be a moving experience.

And Schier has latched on to the cultural and historic significance the little precinct holds.

The whole street is now being presented as powerful living motif around which a range of activities to promote peace is being held.

Together with like-minded locals, including Malaysian Interfaith Network chairman Datuk Anwar Fazal and heritage researcher Khoo Salma Nasution, Schier has helped draw up a month-long series of programmes on religious harmony.

Dubbed the Penang Global Ethic Project, the remarkable venture is organised by Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

"We want to show how unique this street is in the world," explains Salma.

"We want to promote this as a special place where people of all nations, ages, religious and ethnic backgrounds can learn about traditions of peaceful religious co-existence."

It is precincts like this, with its marvellous heritage ambience, that so captivated UNESCO to consider the entire inner city to be made a World Heritage Site.

It is around this street that many of the island's early communities continue to thrive with their trades and lifestyles in romantic defiance against the waves of industrialisation and development to have swept other parts of Penang over the years.

So vibrant and colourful has the place been that Penang's Lieutenant Governor of the early 1800s, George Leith, went as far as to write: "There is not, probably, any part of the world where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together, or so great a variety of languages spoken,"

Indeed, the vibrant ethnic diversity can be measured today by the colourful abundance of festivals.

Some are unique to Penang, having evolved locally over the decades. Some are inherited purely from the old migrant communities.

Few places in the world can parade a booming Hindu procession with hundreds of devotees beside a packed street-side Chinese opera.

Fewer still can boast to hear the ethereal strains of a Muslim prayer call resonate through where Taoist devotees shuffle calmly with joss sticks in age-old shrines.

Perhaps what makes the riot of culture so enchanting is the unmistakable air of authenticity in it.

Many festivals have persevered over the years with the same spirit, ceremony and ritual as observed during George Town's days of yore.

Charmingly enough, George Town is blessed with more than a hundred spiritual sites built by different ethic migrants.

And so the idea behind the project is not just about having exhibitions, but about actually exploring different cultures and places, and thereby inculcating a practical approach towards religion.

"We are looking at this as a pilot project that can be replicated for other parts of the world," says Dr Choong Sim Poey, chairman of the Penang Heritage Trust.

Activities include a charming guided tour for tourists and local residents through walkabouts along the "street of harmony".

The tour is intended to encourage sharing of knowledge about the history, heritage and values represented by the landmarks and places of worship.

The programme has also gotten schools and children involved by conducting guided activities at the different religious sites.

The inner city provides a fine case study of a how a common built environment can effectively unite disparate cultures of faith.

Fazlun M. Khalid, founder of the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences sees the common environment all the world's religions reside in as a mutual starting point for seeking unity.

"Whether we like it or not we are in the same environment - one cannot get away from that," he says.

"Religious faiths have always been environmental in that most of their traditions and aspects of worship are based on expressions of the natural world. That is our common starting point.

"We were not all born in Mecca, Brindavan, Lumbini or Jerusalem."

"And in spite of all our differences, the basis of our existence has been laid in our empathy with the natural world."

It is in using such a mutual, charismatic neighbourhood that the project is hopes to promote common ethical values. These in turn can form the basis for peace and dialogue amongst the world's major religious communities.

"This project is unique. It is the first of its kind in the world," Schier stresses.

"We are living in a globalising world with so many societies and religions coexisting together. And Penang is a model.

"This is like a place where the future of humankind is already there in all its compositions."

In conjunction with the Penang Global Ethic project, a forum on 'Religion and Peace' will be held at the USM ABN-AMRO Arts and Cultural Centre, Beach Street, at 10am on March 4.

An exhibition of world religions is being held at the USM ABN-AMRO Arts and Cultural Centre, Beach Street (in Malay), at Penang Town Hall (in English) and at the Alpha Utara Gallery, China Street (in Mandarin).

Another exhibition featuring Arabic and Chinese Calligraphy is also being held at Galeri Pinang, Dewan Seri Pinang till March 10.

For details on all activities visit www.globalethicpenang.net.

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