After two years of lockdowns and distance learning, a new chapter opens for Christian schools in the Strip. The majority of its students are of the Muslim religion and the “values and identity” of each one are respected. For Palestinians, education is the path to redemption. With confinement, violence among young people increased and it is essential to rebuild coexistence.
Milan () – The mission of the Christian schools of the Strip is to “bear witness” to our faith “directly, showing its values and respecting the identity of people”, and also taking into account that “the majority” of the students “are Muslim and continue to be.” What inspires Catholic institutes in the Palestinian enclave is a very precise idea of culture and what it means to share, says Fr. Gabriel Romanelli – Argentine priest of the Incarnate Word and parish priest of Gaza – and he considers that even the Islamic majority “perceives something special” in these schools. “It is freedom and respect for differences -he underlines-, but without falling into relativism, because we are the first to feel proud of our Catholic identity”.
coexistence and dignity
In the Gaza Strip there are five Christian schools: three Catholic, one Orthodox and one Protestant. There are just over a thousand Christians in the region, of whom 134 are Catholic. It is a tiny percentage in relation to the total of 2.3 million inhabitants who live in what activists and NGOs have often called an “open-air prison”, due to the blockade imposed by Israel after the rise of Hamas. Two of these schools depend on the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem: the Latin Patriarchate Parish School – the oldest private educational institution in Gaza – which has 210 students between the ages of 4 and 14, most of them Muslims (35 Christians in total), and about 90 employees, including teachers. Then there is the College of the Holy Family, which includes from kindergarten to “Tawjihi”, the preparation level for university exams. There are 630 students studying there, of whom about 70 are Christians.
In our institutions, says Fr. Romanelli, “we try to guarantee a good level of education, showing everyone that Christians and Muslims can live together” and basing this coexistence “on the values of a Christian society and the Church”. In the first place, the “dignity of the human person, charity and respect for the truth about God and the world”, a kind of “oasis where people of good will can quench the thirst of the soul, find consolation and receive a appropriate level of education.
The results of this mission can be seen even over time, explains the parish priest, and takes as an example an episode that occurred recently: “Last year the rector and some professors from a university in Gaza came to our school to greet us for Christmas One of them was a sheikh, a teacher of Islamic religion, who told me that he had studied with us until the sixth grade and that ‘these were the most beautiful years of my life.’ teacher. Well, this shows the spirit of the school: without losing our identity we can sow peace, justice and charity, and each one can make their contribution to a true reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples”.
Covid, distance education and starting over
In these two and a half years of the pandemic, the biggest challenge has been to ensure the continuity of education in the midst of confinements, distance education, economic difficulties and a growing feeling of isolation and abandonment in children. “After two years of Covid-19, we are starting again”, says enthusiastically Fr. Romanelli. “We seek personal contact, shorten distances, bring the educator and his students closer -he continues- because in this time we have observed that children, and especially adolescents, have cultivated a kind of violence both internally and among themselves.
“That aggravates the already critical situation caused by the conflicts, from the blitzkrieg in May 2021 to the sudden attack by Israel in early August, which took us by surprise.” The fact of not being able to leave home has influenced the personality of young people and therefore this year more than ever the school must become a place to rediscover socialization and heal the wounds generated by isolation, segregation and fear. to the contact that brought the virus “We are hopeful -says the Gaza priest- that this will be a year of academic freedom after confinements and masks. That is why a few days ago we started the school year with an open day, a holiday to create a climate of trust between families and in relation to the school”. And he adds, “it is a way to counteract the growing violence among young people, which also affects – like never before – teachers and educators. In Arab culture it is rare to see a lack of respect, a violent attitude towards the father, the teacher or the authority, but it is another consequence of the years of the pandemic.
education is a value
“We are working so that this year children and young people grow in the sense of belonging to the school, to the network of Catholic institutions and to Palestinian society as a whole,” explains the director of the school of the Latin Patriarchate in Gaza. “We want to offer – adds Um Fady, as teachers and students call it – something concrete, guaranteeing education and culture. For the beginning of the school year we also give some gifts to the students, as a way to encourage them after all the difficulties that the pandemic has brought.”
Palestinians place a high value on education, attending school is of paramount importance and they are aware that their future depends on it. Christian schools have an added value because they guarantee a high educational level. So much so that many Muslim families choose them for their children, because they also know that “their values and identity” are respected. Curiosity and the desire for knowledge are cultivated even during the vacation months, when young people and children attend summer centers and language courses. “This summer – says Father Romanelli – in the parish we organized a school camp for 180 children and about 50 adolescents, almost a quarter of the Christians in Gaza. For a month they were busy from morning to night with Mass, breakfast, religion lessons, games and contests, musical moments, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and blessing before returning home.” “We are part – concludes Fr. Romanelli – of a larger body, which are the schools of the patriarchy of the entire Holy Land, although the peculiarities of each territory are respected, from Jordan to Palestine and Gaza.
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