Beit Jala, West Bank –We are at gate leading to Bethlehem, and in this village of fifteen thousand inhabitants, rich with centuries-old olive trees and dry stone walls that depict a landscape not dissimilar to the Puglian hinterland of southern-Italy, there sits the oldest catholic school in Palestine: the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. These scholastic institutions make up part of the Patriarchate which comprises 44 schools in total: 13 in Palestine, of which 6 are located in Gaza, 6 in Israel and 25 in the West Bank, for around 20 thousand students in total. But not just for Christians. The one we visited Beit Jala, in the heart of the this Sacred Land, was founded in 1854.
“Here there are 900 students divided into 31 classes, from 4 to 18 years. At first the majority were Christians. Now we have many classes where Muslims are the majority,” says Suhail T. Daibes, the head teacher for the Patriarchate School of Beit Jala. “It isn’t just because the number of Christians in Palestine is in constant decline. It is also because many Muslim families choose for their children to study here, rather than send them to government schools.”
Another teacher, Suhail is convinced of this fact: only education can stop the disappearance of Christianity. Christian Palestinians are generally more wealthy than Muslims and have a lifestyle more similar to those in the West. “Because of this the majority choose to emigrate. Christians are more individualistic. We suffer greatly from limitations to our freedom, with the ground around us seeming less every day, with Palestine becoming more and more like an open-air prison. You must understand also that with the barrier it is difficult even to go and pray freely at our sacred sites in Jerusalem. Because of all this, it is simply easier to just leave. I, in contrast, am certain that I must remain. To resist. This school is the only thing that permits me to do so, because it teaches you to persist in the struggle to find a path of dialogue, and not one of fundamentalism and closed-mindedness, which would serve to purpose.”
For this reason, it has always been the Schools of the Patriarchate that have been open even to Muslims and Druzes. Today we have schools, like Nablus for example where out of 615 students only 71 are Christians. “The Christian children don’t have to attend school only with other Christians. They must study as part of a mix, which is representative of outside society. Otherwise, when they graduate from this school, they will confronted by a different reality, it will trigger in them the desire to emigrate, or perhaps to embrace some sect of fundamentalism,” implores the teacher.
However, if we also have government schools, and those run by UNRWA, the UN agency for refugees in Palestine, why would a Palestinian family choose to send their children to a Christian school? “It is because of the quality of education that they receive here. It is very strict, but at the same time allows for the children to play and have fun. Here you will rarely see problems between the Christians and Muslims, because from a young age they are taught constantly to respect the beliefs and traditions of everyone.”
The right to be respected, however, according to Suhail, is to have a clear identity. “If my identity is strong, if I do not waiver in my identity, they will feel encouraged to respect my rules, from the moment they enter my space. In response, I will try to do the same for them.” To make it easier for us to understand, the teacher, who is very familiar with Italy, gave us an example we could understand: “I heard that there is an ongoing debate on whether or not to keep crucifixes in classrooms. I find this absurd. You are a secular country, but still you have a tradition of Christianity, and must fight to defend it. Otherwise, you risk losing your history. Take my school for example. Here we have at least half of the students being Muslim. Still, everyone came to class today. Do you know why? Because we celebrate Christmas. No Muslims are subject to being left out because it is not a festival of their faith. The Christmas spirit here involves everyone, Christian and Muslim children alike, to whom we have taught to exchange gifts among themselves. What is important however is not just to give, but to receive. Everyone participates in singing Christmas carols, even their Muslim parents. Together with their children, and together with us. We do not have to change just because they are the majority. They have knocked at my door, and I have welcomed them in: my school is honoured to accommodate all of them. However they can’t dictate the laws under my own roof. They can’t do it even here, where Christians has come to represent only 1% of the Palestinian population. Remember your history, because you should not give up on your beliefs and traditions in Europe.