A positive development
Christian, Jewish and Muslim children are to learn about each other's faiths when Ireland opens the first tri-religious primary school in Europe this September to reflect the country's changing demographics.
The so-called Intercultural Interdenominational Primary School (IIPS), which is to be set up in County Kildare within commuting distance of the capital Dublin, is different from other primary schools because it will have three different religious patrons instead of just one.
This means children from the three religious denominations will be taught their own faiths in special religious education lessons as well as learn about each other's faiths, said Mary Shine Thompson, chairwoman of the board of trustees of the proposed school.
A number of parents already registered their children at a public meeting earlier this week with a view to having them enrolled in the school when it is ready to open.
The plans for the school come at a time when Ireland is trying to meet the needs of increasing numbers of immigrants settling in the country and breaking with a national education system that has traditionally been dominated by the Catholic Church.
"Ireland's demography and culture are rapidly diversifying, so at one level this initiative is about responding to a changing Ireland ... The country needs to plan strategically at national and community level for mutual respect and support and harmony," Thompson said.
"We need to plan for the new kind of civic society that is beginning to emerge in Ireland. This school is one span in the bridge to the future," according to Thompson.
While the school was mainly targeted at Christians, Jews and Muslims, however, it would "not restrict entry only to children of those three faiths, but the faiths themselves and the difference between them will be honoured," said Thompson, who is also dean of research and humanities at Dublin's St Patrick's College.
Teaching tolerance and respect is one of the main aims of the school.
"Faith - or faiths, and their expression - will form part of the ethos of the school, and so children will learn experientially ... tolerance and respect will be integral to the school," Thompson said.
The concept of the interdenominational school was the brainchild of Berna Hayden, a former teacher from Kildare, Thompson said, but it was refined and developed in dialogue with religious leaders.
The Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin James Moriarty, Rabbi Charles Middleburgh of the Dublin Progressive Jewish congregation and Imam Hussein Halawa from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland are the main backers of the project.
"We need to inculcate inter-faith communication, tolerance and shared experience from the earliest possible age," Rabbi Middleburgh said. While ordinary primary schools might "accomplish a lot on an educational level," they did not offer "so much that is experiential."
The Irish National Teachers' Organization (INTO) has also welcomed the plans for the school.
"It's a positive development," said John Carr, the INTO General Secretary. "It is the right of parents to choose a religious education for their child. We respect that right."
As more and more people from different cultural and religious backgrounds come to live in the country, people will decide to educate their children together, Carr said.
"I think we will see more of it," he predicted.