Faith-Based Schools

tHE endeavours OF Religion and education have long had a close relationship

During many years of experience in international schools I have occasionally heard criticisms, either international schools are too western-centric and elitist, too academic, or just don't offer programmes for meeting the needs of all students. My own, almost single criticism of international schools, is that by being mostly secular in either mission or ethos, students can miss out on an understanding of spirituality – or if not that, then at least an understanding of how to approach life and be equipped to cope when materialism fails them. And it will!


I recall once being asked by a teenage international school student “What has Jesus got to do with Easter?” Evidently for this student, Easter is all about bunnies and confectionary and not the birth of Christianity and of hope and salvation for the world!


It is not for me to judge the purpose of international education and what curriculum content is to be included or excluded. In my opinion faith, or lack of, within the curriculum, the school gates, the hearts and minds of students and educators, falls into the domain of personal conviction and personal choice. 

My understanding of faith-based international schools is that they either support members of their faith or else proselytise - which in some countries is not allowed. Faith-based schools aren’t all about do-gooders either; teachers are still teaching and students are still learning, so there is very likely a strong business case that accompanies the provision of faith-based international education.



No discussion about faith-based schools can take place without first exploring the meaning of “secular” and a secular schools system.

Secular education is a system of public education in countries with a secular government or separation between religion and state. An example of a secular educational system would be the French public educational system, where conspicuous religious symbols have been banned in schools. This commonly understood meaning of “secular” has different interpretations and implications, and these interpretations influence people’s views on the place of religion in society and in our schools.




The majority of international schools are secular and although religious instruction may not be on the curriculum per se, critical education about religions can be taught in secular schools as long as no single view is presented as being correct, or better than another. 

With this approach, students can explore diverse worldviews, practices and beliefs, as well as the role that religious and non-religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society. The aim is to develop understanding, not to instil belief. It would be difficult for example to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering religious influences.


This is not a new idea. Sweden and Denmark have been providing this type of broad-based study of religions for decades. Norway and Canada have more recently acknowledged the benefits of this approach and, despite legal challenges, now endorse a compulsory academic study of diverse religions and beliefs, for all ages.  

The United Kingdom is not a secular country; it is a country that enshrines legislative tolerance of race religion and creed - Britain today is in some ways a more secular society than it once was, but it is not a secular state.


The United States is not a secular country, but it does have decentralised state-wide powers governing education in schools, and despite the feeling that the US public school system is largely prohibitive of religion; the United States Constitution does permit much private religious activity in and about the public schools:

  • Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.

  • School officials may not mandate or organise prayer at graduation

  • Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state, and, in those capacities, are themselves prohibited from encouraging or soliciting student religious or anti-religious activity. Similarly, when acting in their official capacities, teachers may not engage in religious activities with their students. However, teachers may engage in private religious activity in faculty lounges.

  • Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion.



History shows us that Christianity and science often have come into conflict with each other, as illustrated by the 17th century clash between astronomer Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the condemnation by prominent religious leaders of Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory of human evolution. The Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 further highlighted the rift between science and some branches of Christianity over the theory of evolution, a contentious relationship that endures even today. 

In modern America, the United States Constitution attempts to settle this controversy... 

Schools may teach about explanations of life on earth, including religious ones, such as creationism, in comparative religion or social studies classes. In science class, however, they may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology).


Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labelling as ‘Science’ an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including "creationism," although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student's religious explanation for life on earth. 


Religious or anti-religious remarks made in the ordinary course of classroom discussion or student presentations are permissible and constitute a protected right. If in a sex education class a student remarks that abortion should be illegal because God has prohibited it, a teacher should not silence the remark, ridicule it, rule it out of bounds or endorse it, any more than a teacher may silence a student's religiously-based comment in favour of choice.


According to Pew Research Center analysis (2015) of data covering 199 countries and territories around the world, more than 80 countries favour a specific religion, either as an [official] government-endorsed religion or by affording one religion [preferential] treatment over other faiths.


More than eight-in-ten countries (86%) provide funding or resources specifically for religious education programs or religious schools that disproportionately benefit the [official] religion.


Countries with state-endorsed (or “established”) faiths tend to more severely regulate religious practice, including placing restrictions or bans on minority religious groups. 

One of the ways states with [official] or [preferred] religions restrict religion is through formally banning certain religious groups. Among the 34 countries in the world that have this kind of ban in place, 44% are countries with an [official] state religion, while 24% are countries that have a [preferred] or favoured religion.


Banning of religious groups is much less common among states that do not have an [official] or [preferred] religion, with only three countries in this category – the Bahamas, Jamaica and Singapore – maintaining formal bans on particular groups in 2015.


This relationship holds even when taking population size, democratic processes and social hostilities into account. In other words, countries with an [official] or [preferred] religion are more likely to enact bans on some religious groups than countries without an [official] or [preferred] religion – regardless of how large a country is, how democratic it is or how widespread social hostilities involving religion are within its borders.


States with [official] or [preferred] religions also are more likely than other states to interfere with worship or other religious practices. Among these countries, 78% interfered with the worship of religious groups in 2015 to some degree (e.g. in a few cases, many cases or a blanket prohibition). By comparison, 46% of countries with neither an [official] or [preferred] religion interfered with worship practices.


A slim majority of countries (53%) have no [official] or [preferred] religion. Within their borders, these countries treat different religions (e.g. Christianity, Islam) more or less equally, and their governments generally have a neutral relationship with religion.


A small share of countries (5%) have no [official] state religion or [preferred] religion but nonetheless maintain a highly restrictive or hostile relationship with some or all major religious groups in the country, strictly regulating religious institutions and practices. This amounts to ten countries: China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and several former Soviet republics - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan; places where government officials seek to control worship practices, public expressions of religion and political activity by religious groups.


China for example, does not have an [official] state religion, nor does it have a [preferred] or favoured religion. Under its one-party political system, however, it has had a heavily restrictive or even hostile state relationship with religion, strictly regulating and monitoring religious institutions. China’s constitution says citizens have “freedom of religious belief,” but it also limits protections to “normal” religious activities. In practice, the state closely controls religious activity, and only five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” are allowed to register with the state and hold worship services. The state frequently detained, arrested or harassed members of both registered and unregistered religious groups in 2015.


Christianity is the second most common [official] “favoured” religion around the world. Thirteen countries (30% of countries with an [official] religion) declare Christianity in general, or else a particular Christian denomination to be their [official] state religion. Nine of these countries are in Europe, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Monaco and Iceland. Two countries in the Americas – Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic – and one in the Asia-Pacific region – Tuvalu – have Christianity as their [official] state religion. Only one country in sub-Saharan Africa is [officially] Christian: Zambia.

Among the 40 countries that have a [preferred] or favoured religion – but not an [official] state religion – most favour Christianity. Twenty-eight countries (70%) have Christianity as the [preferred] religion, mostly in Europe and the Americas. Five countries in sub-Saharan Africa and three in the Asia-Pacific region have Christianity as the favoured religion.


Faith-based education in international schools (or the Christian school movement) occurs largely because of American Christian outreach organisations, such as:


The ACSI serves almost 3,000 member-schools in the United States, over 20,000 member schools internationally, and help more than 5.5 million students worldwide connect to Christian education. ACSI is focused on serving two different international elements.

  • "International" Christian schools are those located outside of the US serve the expatriate community and often, a portion of the host country population. These schools use curricular programs originating outside their host country, employ internationally educated faculty, and specifically develop programs that prepare students for tertiary education outside the host country. Frequently, instruction is in English with a Western-style curriculum. The ACSI International School office within headquarters serves international schools located in more than 77 countries.

  • "National" Christian schools are those located outside of the US and primarily focus on serving the local population, following the curriculum guidelines of that particular country. ACSI has 20 country/regional offices around the world providing services to these national Christian schools movements.


Through the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) ALEA (Hong Kong) has a mission to network, equip and nurture leaders, educators and schools to advance Christ-centred ministries in Asia. Educators, PS-12 schools and post-secondary institutions focus on the highest quality education while establishing Christian communities throughout Asia. Today there are nearly 250 Lutheran schools in Asia, and the LCMS operates three international schools.

  • Hong Kong International School, Hong Kong, China
  • Concordia International School, Shanghai, China
  • Concordia International School, Hanoi, Vietnam


NICS is a unique ministry believing that God is using to change lives all over the world. The network is extending its influence to 4,700 students and their families in 100 Nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, learning in 21 schools - from small (under 100 students) to large (over 800 students), K-12 programs, instruction in English, issuing the accredited US high school diploma.


Oasis is a division of NICS operating schools that emphasise morals, ethics, and values. It soon became clear that the educational needs in some countries demanded a different approach. OASIS International Schools was formed as a way of meeting those needs in countries where there is sensitivity to openly Christian operations. As a faith-based agency, NICS found that they can effectively serve others even if the school does not function as a Christian institution.


According to The Salvation Army Year Book 2013, The Salvation Army operates: 954 kindergarten and sub-primary schools; 1,247 primary schools; 133 upper primary and middle schools; 274 secondary and high schools; 33 special needs schools for the visually impaired and disabled; 151 training and vocational training centres; 10 colleges and universities; 63 of the above are residential/boarding schools. There is also an unknown number of after-school clubs, informal street education and pre-school facilities which are part of the programmes of Salvation Army corps (churches) around the world.

For more religious organisations, see a list of links at the end of this articles.


The 2015 Pew Report says that in 2010 “Islam was second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population," while, Islam is the most common government-endorsed faith.


Among the 43 countries with a state religion, 27 (63%) name Sunni Islam, Shia Islam or just Islam in general as their official faith. Most of the countries where Islam is the official religion (16 of 27, or 59%) are in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, seven officially Islamic countries (26%) are in the Asia-Pacific region, including Bangladesh, Brunei and Malaysia. And there are four countries in sub-Saharan Africa where Islam is the state religion: Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania and Somalia. No countries in Europe or the Americas have Islam as their official religion.


Saudi Arabia’s basic law designates Islam as the official religion, and conversion from Islam is grounds for charges of apostasy – legally punishable by death. The basic law requires all citizens to be Muslim, and public worship of non-Muslim faiths is prohibited. While non-Muslims are allowed to worship in private, the government does not always respect this right.


In Turkey, where Islam is categorised as a preferred but not official religion, the government has assigned tens of thousands of students to state-run religious schools known as “imam hatip” schools, while limiting the number of students who can be admitted to public secondary schools. From 2003 to 2015, the number of students in the imam hatip schools rose from 63,000 to about 1 million, and some secular parents have voiced concern that this amounts to heavy-handed government support of religion through education.


In Malaysia, Islam is the official religion, and a 1996 fatwa required the country to follow Sunni Islam teachings in particular. Other Muslim sects, like Shiite, Ahmadiyya and Al-Arqam Muslims, are banned as deviant sects of Islam. These groups are not allowed to assemble, worship or speak freely about their faith.



In countries like Malaysia, for example, there are a growing number of affluent English-speaking Malay-Muslims who have a choice between sending their children to an Islamic international school or secular international school. For them, religion is important but at the same time, they want their children to be educated in the world’s lingua franca. Modern Islamic international schools place an emphasis on Islamic studies and additional Islamic activities; these are things that parents buy into and feel is a very important foundation for their kids. 

For example, the Islamic curriculum at Greenview International School in Malaysia comprises various subjects, namely Quran recitation (Taj weed), Prophet Muhammad’s sayings (Hadith) the history of Prophet Muhammad and other prophets (See rah), the memorisation of certain Quranic verses (Tahfeez), the sciences of the Quran (‘Uloomul Quran), and the sciences of the Hadith (Mustalahul Hadith). Secondary students sit for the Cambridge O Level Islamiyat, besides the Cambridge IGCSE examinations. Such schools welcome critical thinking and encouraged students to question their teachers of Islamic subjects. The schools are also open to non-Muslims.


An important factor in favour of Islamic international schools in Malaysia is affordability, Islamic international schools are far more affordable than their secular counterparts - secular international schools are at least five times more expensive. Islamic international schools target high-income Muslim professionals with an “Islamic inclination.” Parents who send their children to such schools were educated in the US or UK, “They want the best of both world’s - an international curriculum and Islamic studies.”


Malaysian Muslims desire more in-depth religious education for their children because of perceived crime and corruption. “They feel society is too corrupted, too dangerous; they fear their children will become corrupt.” Greenview school director Muhammad Azman Hamzah believes that Muslim parents prefer Islamic schools because they are afraid of bad influence from the internet.


Buddhism is the next most commonly favoured religion, after Christianity. Buddhism is the official religion in two countries, Bhutan and Cambodia.


Israel is the only country in the world with Judaism as its official state religion. 


No country names Hinduism as its official state religion – though India has a powerful Hindu political party, and Nepal came close to enshrining Hinduism in 2015, when the rejection of a constitutional amendment declaring Hinduism as the state religion led to a confrontation between pro-Hindu protesters and police.


Our global economic future depends on our kids being able to work with people of all faiths and none. As adults, they will enter countries where differences in cultural and religious practices must be understood, tolerated and respected – in this area, success is predicated on their ability to work in harmony with people with fundamentally different world views.



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