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Christians in the Muslim World

That Patient and Tenacious Sowing over 150 years

In 1854 the first school of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was created. Today there are forty-five schools in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, with over twenty-thousand pupils and a staff of two-thousand people. A reality of extraordinary commitment and testimony to the dramatic situation in the region.

On January 27-28 the Latin Patriarchate Schools’ Forum was held in Amman and brought together the principles and administrators of some fifty Latin Patriarchate Schools. It was the first forum ever despite the fact that most of those schools had existed for more than a hundred and fifty years. This forum was undoubtedly a landmark in the history of the Latin Patriarchate Schools (LPS).

 

 

Obviously, a major cause behind this long delay was the political upheaval and its repercussions which have been hampering normal life in the Middle East in general and the Holy Land in particular for so long. In fact, at the time the LPS were established the Holy Land was one single political entity under Ottoman occupation. Today, to say the least, we have three political entities and a fourth might, unfortunately, be on its way.

 

 

The focus of reflection of the Forum was ‘The mission of the Latin Patriarchate Schools in the Holy Land.’ The gathering was meant to do some thinking about our educational mission and to find ways by which to bring it up to date. A lot of global waves of change were present. It is not that we are confusing mission with methods. Our mission never changes; our methods do, when necessity urges us to change. Evidently, the long disconnection between these schools took a heavy toll not only on the way they are connected together but also on the way these schools are performing. Despite all the differences, everybody unanimously agreed – and here is my point – that the Latin Patriarchate Schools enjoyed a particular and unique mission; and that the uniqueness of this mission is the reason behind not only the numerous achievements but also, and mostly, behind the very survival of these schools, which have been defying all kinds of obstacles and hardships.

 

 

To understand the uniqueness of this mission, it is kind of imperative to go back to 1854 when the first Latin Patriarchate school was established. Seven years before that, under the declining power of the Ottoman Empire, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was restored. Half a million Palestinian Arabs lived in the land, most of whom were Muslims. Some 60,000 were Christians (12%) and around 20,000 were Jews (4%). Most of these lived a poor autonomous rural life in small villages scattered across the slopes and mountains of Palestine. They suffered from extreme poverty, ignorance and poor health conditions. Public schools did not exist while very few private schools, mostly Christian, existed in the metropolitan cities and were accessible only to the elite. The majority of the population was without the advantage of education in schools.

 

 

Alarmed about these conditions, Monsignor Valerga, the first Latin Patriarch, sensed an urgent and pressing need to act. He expressed his deep concern about the need for education and decided to activate an apostolic program based on parish schools to promote faith as well as the human, intellectual and social development of underdeveloped communities. In fact, with this line of thinking, he established in 1854 the first LP school in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. Many other schools followed and all of them were in remote and forgotten villages and communities of the Holy Land.

 

 

Underlying this interest of the Church in establishing schools was undoubtedly the pressing need to find ways to catechize Christian children. Undoubtedly, this was a main cause behind this major adventurous undertaking, however it was not the only one. This, indeed, went hand in hand with another major reason: a deep sense of belonging to the Holy Land and its people.

 

 

Aware of Mission

 

 

Christianity – and this is a source of our pride – was born in this land, the Holy Land. Christ himself lived and died in this land. He founded his Church, the Mother Church, in this land and entrusted her to its people. Christians of the Holy Land are aware of their identity, on the one hand, and of their mission, on the other. On top of being Christians they are Arabs and form an integral part of this community. This is where the Lord destined them to carry the message and to bear witness to Him.

 

 

This is a combination of religious and patriotic belonging. This apostolic program started to expand into what is today Jordan in 1866 with the establishment of the first LP school in Salt. Later that year, another school was established in the northern city of Jaffa-Galilee. Although free of charge these schools attracted very few families. Education was not a priority. Poverty resulting from the Ottoman occupation forced most children to work at an early age to support their families and themselves. As regards girls, according to local culture they were not supposed to learn reading and writing which were considered a dangerous commodity in the sense that girls might be inclined to easily communicate with young men. The assistance of the nuns was instrumental in changing this attitude, and the decision to enroll girls was made possible when the sisters themselves were eager to serve as teachers.

 

 

In those early years, the Patriarchate’s apostolic educational program had very modest goals: on one hand, to teach catechism to Christians; on the other, to teach reading, writing and mathematics to children in general (including Muslim children). This modest program continued to grow down the years and today the LP has a network of forty-five schools spread all over the cities and towns of the Holy Land (Jordan, Palestine and Israel); a home for more than twenty thousand students who are served by a staff of almost two thousand employees. These schools are largely parish-centered community-oriented schools. Doors are open to all children without prejudice to their gender, social, economic or religious backgrounds. Our children are mostly form Christian and Muslim backgrounds but some come also from Druze, Samaritan and Bahaey families.

 

 

The Latin Patriarchate’s efforts to found schools would have been vain in those early and very difficult years without the help of the Equestrian Order of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher.

 

 

The knights and ladies have long acted on behalf of the Patriarchate in general and the schools in particular in their native countries, making the whole Christian world aware of their brothers and sisters in faith in the Holy Land. This was instrumental in the survival of this mission. This action, indeed, continues to this day and the LPS have been the great beneficiaries of this embassy.

 

 

Presently and in the future the LP cannot and would never be able to go ahead alone with such an ambitious mission. Its universal character as a Mother Church entrusted with a mission of such magnitude compels us to resort to the help of other Churches on a constant basis.

 

 

Despite the recognition of the LPS role in the national educational process by both the Jordanian and Palestinian governments, the support of the Ministries of Education for such schools does not go beyond exceed providing school text books at subsidized rates in addition to some training programs and supervision. The immense need that is encountered by both ministries in maintaining and developing their respective networks of schools does not allow at the time being support for the development of private schools in a more concrete fashion and we do not expect to arrive at such a stage in the foreseeable future. In Israel things are slightly different and there our five schools receive partial financial subsidies. It is totally the responsibility of the managing organization, in our case the Latin Patriarchate, to undertake all that is necessary for the running of these schools and all that is needed for them in terms of rehabilitation, upgrading, development and so forth.

 

 

What we see at the outset hardly tells the whole story. The LPS, on top of their contribution to the development of education in the Holy Land, have also made an instrumental and profound contribution to the social and political development of the communities they have been serving for a century and a half.

 

 

The numbers of students down the years has never decreased. This is no surprise given that our schools have provided a sound education to all our pupils, both girl and boys, of all faiths and rites. Our education is based on religious, moral and ethical values. In this sense, our schools play a very important interfaith as well as ecumenical role. It is a day-to-day life dialogue between the different segments of the community. A growing number of parents send their children to our schools knowing that each and every one of them is taken care of with the same love and care.

 

 

In addition to the schools, a Catholic University in Madaba, Jordan, is being established and it is expected to start enrolling students next academic year (2010/2011). This is another extremely ambitious pastoral program that the LP is implementing. It is another proof of the success of its educational program. “This present initiative,” said His Holiness Pope Benedict during the blessing of the foundation of the Madaba Catholic University last March, “responds to the request of many families who, pleased with the formation received in schools by religious authorities, are demanding an analogous option at the university level.”[1] This ‘educational apostolate,’ again using the very words of His Holiness, is greatly needed and the Church is called upon to attend to such a great and useful mission. On top of improving the quality of lives by helping students take their place in society equipped with knowledge, skills and faith, it encourages tolerance and acceptance of the other.

 

 

I would also like to emphasize the fact that the LP through its educational institutions is committed to protecting the national heritage in the present and to preparing the next generations to lead our culture to a higher future. This is done through a rigorous curriculum that we offer to our pupils from KG1 through twelfth grade, for boys and girls. Our curriculum strives to exceed the standards required by the respective Ministries of Education with additional courses in different disciplines.

 

 

As a network of Catholic schools we believe that religious education is a main pillar of the educational process. Moreover, in our culture – that of Middle Eastern Arabs – one can underline the decisive role of religion in daily life more than anywhere else. It can be a source of peace and/or social and political tensions. Our primary goal is to help our students mature in faith – each according to his or her own faith – and to lead them to God as spelled out in our motto Ut cognoscant Te.

 

 

Religion classes are given to all students, each group according to their faith. Classes of comparative religions are also given by specialists to the students together to help them appreciate each other’s faith and open to each other. More than just tolerance, we try to help them acknowledge the existence of differences and accept these differences as an enriching and inspiring element rather than a separating and sorting-out element.

 

 

Pastoral Work

 

 

LPS that are spread through the cities and villages of the Holy Land are by definition a witness to the pastoral work of the Latin Patriarchate and more profoundly a reservoir for its future. Without catechism and religious education provided at schools and the nourishing and supporting services of the adjacent parish, the now and the tomorrow generation of priests is at risk. The LP is currently served by some eighty-five priests all around the diocese who are graduates of our schools. The seminary which is a natural development of our school in Beit Jala is another confirmation of the complementarities between the work of schools, parishes and the LP as One Church.

 

 

The LPS in the Holy Land are at the heart of diocese pastoral and social work. Sound, safe and proper education contributes to the sustaining of a cultured and learned generation that is provided with tools to preserve and continue to bear witness to the traditions of its ancestors.

 

 

Our LPS as an ideal environment for the children are a direct reflection of the parishes and the communities we serve. They are not islands that are isolated from the local context but, on the contrary, they are Church entities that are recognized not only officially but also, and especially by, society at large. Of course our primary concern is Christian students, with emphasis on the needy and challenged, but we also offer our service equally to others, and especially to Muslim students, wherever we have a school.

 

 

What is the drive and what is the purpose behind this endeavor and all the sacrifices it entails? We consider our schools a condition sine qua non for our survival. Firstly, they are our means to transmit our Christian values to our Christian young people; secondly, they are our means to bear witness to our Christian values to others who are not Christians.

 

 

Studying together in such an atmosphere helps bridge the divides and overcome prejudice and misperceptions and promotes respect for each other’s religion and traditions. What the whole world is suffering from today is a lack of acceptance of the other done in the name of God/Allah/Elohim. In our schools and through long standing day-to-day life-dialogue and life-oriented programs we overcome such obstacles.

 

 

This is our commitment to society at large. Through our LPS we want to build healthy, strong people who are able to demonstrate the contribution that Christians can offer to the whole of the national community.

 

 


 

[1]Benedict XVI, ‘Address on the Occasion of the Blessing of the Cornerstone of Madaba University of the Latin Patriarchate,’ 9 May 2009.

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