Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info: email@example.com
It is not that easy to find accurate and adequate historical documents regarding the establishment, growth and development of the Terra Sancta Schools during the past centuries, especially during the first three centuries of the establishment of the Franciscan Order in Palestine and the Middle East.
I- Terra Sancta Schools in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries:
Among the first tasks of the Franciscans since the beginning of their existence in Palestine, was to care for the European pilgrims coming to visit the Holy Places. In order to insure an easy and fruitful visit for these pilgrims to the Holy Land, and for the sake of securing work for a number of local citizens as tourist guides, the Franciscans were keen to create a group of educated citizens who were fluent in European languages, especially Italian which was considered as the principle European language during those centuries.
The Custody of the Holy Land began its educational institutions at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The beginnings, needless to say, were quite humble. However, with the passing of time, these ventures grew in size to the extent of constituting an important positive dimension, which was added to the other human dimensions of the Catholic and Franciscan existence in the Middle East.
The first reference for a school established and administered by the Franciscans dates back to the year 1598, when Giovanni Cootwyck visited the Holy Places and wrote in his diary that a school was built near the Franciscan convent next to the Church of Nativity, fifty years prior to the date of his visit, that is in the middle of the sixteenth century. The aim of that school was to secure elementary education to Christian boys, both Catholic, and Greek Orthodox as well. In his description of the life in Bethlehem, at that time, he says: "The majority of the Christians in Bethlehem are Greek Orthodox and the minority are Catholics. However, they are all fluent in Italian which they call the language of the Europeans and is spoken by the children. The adult citizens use this language to serve the Western pilgrims as guides for them and for the Friars. These citizens are keen that their children learn this language in order to continue serving the convent".
From the above quotation one can surmise that the Franciscan Friars were zealous in teaching the Italian language. In fact the citizens of Bethlehem were using it in the service of the convent and for pilgrims. We can also conclude that this language was widely known by the citizens of this city and hence an indication of the success of the school in it's educational mission.
In the General Chapter of the Franciscan Friars held in Toledo, Spain, in 1645, the attendees decided to entrust the Friars with the responsibility of raising the children of the guides and interpreters serving in the convents of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth and instructing them in the principles of the Christian religion until the age of nine. The Friars also provided lunch for the children and send them home in the evening.
In his report the Custos of the Holy Land stated that the Custody administered about twenty schools more or less in the following countries: six in Palestine, six in Syria, five in Egypt, two in Cyprus and one in Constantinople. The overall number of students in these schools totaled 188. During the seventeenth century schools were attached to every convent. Although it has been difficult to find an accurate date for establishing each school, it is evident that the Custody of the Holy Land used to run schools in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth prior to 1645. Our records show that some schools were vacant during certain periods of time for various reasons.
With respect to the school in Bethlehem, Father Bernardo Surio, who visited Palestine during the period 1644-1647, says the following: "The Franciscan Friars teach the children of Bethlehem religious studies and the general sciences so as to succeed their fathers in working as guides and interpreters for the Friars. This is beneficial for them spiritually and materially".
The Jesuit Monk Nau, who visited the Holy Places in 1674 says: "The Franciscans teach between thirty to forty children in Bethlehem free of charge... These children pray with the Friars...and participate in the religious procession, in an orderly and pious manner, from the church to the Grotto and kiss the place where Jesus was born...".
With respect to the Jerusalem school, Knight D'Arvieux said in1600: "A number of Franciscan Friars teach Christian children singing and music, others teach them reading and writing in Latin and Italian, while other Friars teach them religious studies". He added, "Nobody can imagine the help which the Custody of the Holy Land needs to provide for the living of the Friars ...as well as of a big number of Christian families, in addition to securing the funds necessary for raising up the children of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and many other places free of charge".
In 1687, the Custodian of the Holy Land wrote the following to the Vatican: "At the convents in Jerusalem and Bethlehem there is a school for teaching humanities, Italian, religious singing and religious principles for the Catholic and Greek Orthodox children. All children, Catholic and Orthodox, are provided with a meal". However, at that time, Greek Orthodox children were being accepted in our schools in the hope of one day embracing the Catholic faith.
II- Terra Sancta Schools from the Eighteenth Century Till 1840:
The following factors caused an interruption in the growth of the educational mission of the Terra Sancta Schools:
A. Political changes
B. The economic situation of the Franciscans.
C. The spread of plague, which forced the Friars to close a large number of schools.
It is well to note that during this era society did not give much importance to the free professions. In addition, Christians were deprived of assuming any high positions in the government since these positions were restricted solely for Turks. Hence, it became necessary for Christians to learn handicrafts in order to secure a living. The schools unfortunately did not provide such learning.
Consequently, in 1740 the Franciscans at Saint Saviour's Convent in Jerusalem established a vocational school to teach students the different professions such as carpentry, iron smith, printing, etc., professions which still exist today attesting to their long history.
During the eighteenth century, the schools continued to provide their services to students, though with great sacrifices, so as to help people meet the above-mentioned difficulties. It is interesting to note the comments of one visitor named Giovanni Mariti, who in 1767 visited the Jerusalem school. He says: "There is one teacher at St. Savior's Convent in Jerusalem who teaches the Catholic children of the city reading Latin, reading and writing Italian, as well as religious studies and singing. The number of children ranges between forty and fifty. They are provided with one meal at the convent and leave at sunset. They continue to receive this education till the age of twelve... These Friars perform a noble deed which benefits the children, their parents, and the Friars themselves because they help them in the church service, work as guides for them and for the pilgrims, and some of these students conduct commercial activities in the East and in Europe".
Before ending the discussion on this era of history, it is important to mention that at the outset of the nineteenth century it was only the Custody of the Holy Land who began to accept Greek Orthodox students without any pressure of embracing the Catholic faith. In fact, there had been an explicit decision taken by the Council of the Custody on February 20, 1809 allowing the acceptance of Greek Orthodox students in the Bethlehem school if the students so wished to do so and their parents requested. Needless to say they had to abide by all the rules and regulations of the school. Violators would naturally be dismissed from the school.
III- From 1840 To the Present Time:
After Sultan Abdul Hameed had issued his famous constitution in 1840 in which he granted specific freedoms in the field of education, the Custody of the Holy Land exerted enormous efforts for developing its schools for both boys and girls. Consequently, the Custody schools were either established or re-opened in Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Cyprus. Likewise, a new regulation was approved for schools in all the areas of the missionary parishes.
Our schools were not restricted to male students only. Later on our schools were opened for girls. The administration of these schools was handed over to religious nuns such as the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This was in compliance with the wish of Pope Pius IX who sent a letter to the Custodian of the Holy Land in 1846 saying: "The Terra Sancta schools now existing should stay and develop, and the Custody of the Holy Land should sacrifice anything for the growth of these schools. In every parish, especially if it is large, there should be a school for boys and another for girls". The Custody has been faithful to the contents of this letter ever since.
Consequently, a new chapter in the history of the Terra Sancta schools had begun. For the first time the "Sisters of St. Joseph" and the "Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Egypt" were requested to organize and administer the Terra Sancta Schools for girls.
The above-mentioned Turkish Constitution had given new life to the educational institutions of the Custody of the Holy Land, especially the schools. The Custody was finally awakened from its deep slumber. In a report written in 1842, we read that the principle concern of the Custos of the Holy Land who had assumed his new responsibilities in June 1841 was that the education of boys and girls would begin in Jerusalem. Schools were then established in Cyprus as well.
The Custody had opened the first school for girls in Jerusalem in 1841, in Bethlehem the following year, and in Acre around 1844. During this period, the Superior General of the Franciscans asked the Custody to increase the number of schools for boys and girls. Hence, the Custody opened two more schools, one each in Beit Jala and Beit Sahur near Bethlehem in 1842 and being administered by the Friars.
In 1848, the Custody had called the Sisters of St. Joseph to administer the Terra Sancta Schools for girls in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and later on in Bethlehem.
In 1852, the Custody opened a school in Tripoli, Lebanon.
In 1856, the Custody opened a large school in the city of Alexandria, Egypt and handed it over to the Christian Brothers Schools ( the Frères ).
In 1861, the Custody opened a school for boys in Ramleh, and later on another school for girls.
During the same period, the Custody opened an orphanage for boys and another for girls in Jerusalem.
In 1923, the Custody opened a school for girls in Limassol, Cyprus.
In 1929, in response to the wish of the Vatican, the Custody bought Cardinal Ferrari's school later to be known as "Terra Sancta College - Jerusalem". Teaching continued in this college until the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. This college became a springboard in the field of education for after its establishment, Terra Sancta schools aspired to develop and establish secondary schools. Various schools furnished the college with excellent students who, in turn benefited from special scholarships given by the administration of Terra Sancta College in Jerusalem.
In 1933, the new school in Jaffa was built.
In 1946, the Custody acquired the Frères school in Latakia, Syria.
In 1947, the Custody started building the new college in Aleppo because the old school which was built in 1859 became too small to accommodate the large number of students.
In 1948, the Custody opened the Terra Sancta College in Amman.
In 1967, the Syrian Government nationalized all the schools of the Custody of the Holy Land. The Government also nationalized all the private schools which refused to abide by the new instructions regarding education. Consequently, the Custody lost, as a result of this nationalization, seven schools with 3495 students
The subjects taught in the past centuries were religious studies, Arabic, Italian, French, English, Turkish, Mathematics, Geography, History, etc. At present, however the Terra Sancta schools have adhered to the government curricula with special emphasis on other subjects.
At present, the Custody owns and runs the following schools:
1. Israel/Palestine: Two schools in Jerusalem, one for girls from kindergarten till tenth grade, and another for boys from kindergarten till ninth grade, and co-education from the tenth grade till the twelfth. One school in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Acres and Ramleh; and two in Jaffa, elementary and secondary.
2. Jordan, Cyprus and Argentina: one full school in each and two elementary schools in Lebanon.
The above schools total a student body of over ten thousand students.
As stated above, the Syrian government nationalized the private schools in 1967 and hence only some kindergartens remain. Although the Syrian courts have recognized the right of the Custody in owning its schools, they still have not been handed over to their rightful owners.
The Custody handed over the administration of its schools in Egypt to the Egyptian Friars of the Sacred Family's vice - province when an agreement was reached in 1992. Eight schools were handed over to them with a student body of 7,000.
The Educational Mission
It has been stated in the historical synopsis that the Custody had always been keen to build a school adjacent to every convent and church so as to care for the education of the parish children, both boys and girls.
We also stated that at the beginning, the Terra Sancta schools admitted Catholic students only but soon extended their educational service towards the end of the seventeenth century, to include non-Catholic students as well. At the beginning of the twentieth century our schools opened their doors to non-Christian students such as Moslems and Jews. At present, the number of non-Christian students now exceeds those of Christians in some of our schools. In many ways we consider this a healthy situation and a brilliant success to our Christian mission and to the sound and just coexistence between Christians and Moslems.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century, the Custody had called the Sisters of St. Joseph to run the Terra Sancta Schools for girls in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jaffa, etc.
St. Francis entrusted his Friars with the custody of the Holy Places in Palestine in order to maintain these places and prepare them for worship as well as for the performance of religious rites. The Vatican confirmed this mission in 1342.
The Custody certainly realized that the care of the Holy Places would prove useless, or its use would be diminished if this region were to become vacant of its Christian presence. If so, the Holy Places would simply become museums visited by tourists and pilgrims. Without the local Christians even the Franciscan presence in these areas would lose its meaning. For this reason, it was inevitable that we had to turn to parochial and further educational endeavors. Franciscan schools presence thus became vital and necessary for maintaining the Christians presence in this region as well as deepening their roots in this Holy Land where Christ founded his Church.
The schools became more important because under the Ottoman rule, non-Turks, especially Christians were excluded from occupying the high positions in the State. Consequently, the Christians had either to immigrate, convert to Islam, or study foreign languages which would assist them later on in pursuing their university education and specializing in professions such as law, medicine, engineering, etc.. They were permitted to work as interpreters at the convents and foreign institutions, or work in the field of tourism as guides for tourists and pilgrims coming to this country for religious purposes.
In the face of this challenge, many Christians were morally defeated. They either left the country or converted to Islam. However, those who withstood the challenge found in the Christian schools, including the Terra Sancta Schools, a golden opportunity to acquire a solid academic education. These Christian educational institutions had to develop both quantitatively and qualitatively to meet those needs.
The roots of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land dates back to that historical encounter between St. Francis and the Ayyubite King Al-Kamil in the year 1219. St. Francis did not leave any written description of that encounter. Yet we live its effect in our religious statutes. They speak about sending the friars to live among the Moslems in peace, in harmony, and in brotherhood, testifying for Christ through their life and thanks be to God, the Friars, for the most part, have been doing just that... living among the Moslems for the last seven centuries in mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.
This mutual and continuous respect among the Franciscans and the Islamic World has also been in line with the Vatican's wishes when it sent its instructions to the Franciscans in two official letters on October 7, 1225 and on March 17, 1226. In both letters, the Pope requested the Franciscans to maintain the Holy Places so as to strengthen the faith of those Christians living there and to testify for Christ through their life and deeds. The Franciscans were thus able to win the respect of not only, the Moslems but of others too, during this long period of their life in the Islamic World.
Terra Sancta schools, as any other Christian educational institution, are based on the philosophy of general education and the educational philosophy of every society in which they function with special emphasis on Christianity.
Christ asked His disciples to go and teach all the nations. Since the Church's mission is not only directed towards Christians, it is also directed towards non-Christians such as Moslems and Jews.
Terra Sancta Schools and Society:
Terra Sancta schools are unique because our philosophy is to bring individuals together without any bias either to social classes or to Christian or non-Christian students in terms of educational activities. The school has a special entity. It is a ring so to speak which links the family with society. The school acquaints the student with the values of both family life and of society so as to benefit from both. The school assists the parents by educating their children, and by developing them mentally, intellectually and literarly.
The school offers the students a comprehensive and complete education shaping both the spiritual and mental sphere of the person as well as mutual respect for all. It attempts to meet the needs of all those who are deprived economically, both physically, morally, and to welcome the stranger. Thus our interest in education leads to and becomes an act of love towards humanity. In many ways our schools offer an opportunity, especially in today's world, to develop the entire person. In many ways, the future is linked with and dependent on this type of education.
The education provided in our schools should be a vehicle for all the young people, irrespective of their religious beliefs and races, in obtaining the education they deserve. Our schools, like all other schools, should aim at educating and raising the youth according to a comprehensive plan.
Education provided by our schools should instill proper values and understanding worldwide issues such as poverty and social injustice while at the same time learning how to make the right choices towards peace, solidarity and development. In our society our schools should endeavor to teach students not only how to prepare for the work place but to do so both ethically, and morally for the sake of humanity. The policy of our schools has always been openness and service towards all. It is not only a necessity but also a mission to be fulfilled in the environment in which we live.
If we do not examine it regularly in the light of the present social, cultural and educational necessities, then this call for development will remain futile and unrewarding. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in a situation where our work in educating will lose the spirit of innovation, development, progress and creativity. Terra Sancta schools are called on to continuously develop the educational process to include the total education of individuals whoever they may be.
For this reason, we call on our administrators and teachers to hold comprehensive group conferences and to examine what success we have achieved in the light of our educational mission, a mission that must always be innovative. We must also incorporate the Franciscan charism which has permeated our schools throughout our history, a charism that should lead us to deeper convictions.
The school should provide the possibility and the necessary atmosphere for building the human personality: I.e. the moral, spiritual and cultural life leading towards total integration in our society. Our schools cannot be isolated from other schools. They should be with the community, for the community and complementary to the community. They should live in harmony and solidarity with other Christian and non-Christian educational institutions. In the framework of the every day life where children and youngsters grow, it is essential that our schools are dedicated towards educating these children to become good citizens who are ready to bear responsibility for the public good. For this reason, history calls us not to lose our distinguishing charism that is, to put our schools in the service of others, to open our doors for all people, and to make our schools centers for spiritual and educational growth.
Terra Sancta schools must give special care towards the poor. For the good news of the Gospel is oriented towards the poor. In many ways, the Terra Sancta schools have a special mandate based on the Holy Scripture towards the poor. If the student is unable to pay his/her tuition, we do not charges them. In fact, those who are able to pay... many pay only a symbolic or nominal payment. In this regard, the Church requests the state to treat the Terra Sancta schools in the same way it treats the government schools for the following two reasons:
1. Parents have a natural right to care for the education of their children and to choose the kind of education they wish. Since the parents of the students of Christian schools are citizens who enjoy equal rights and duties before the law, they consequently have the right to benefit from the private schools without paying the tuition fees since they are also paying taxes.
2. The aim of the State is not to nationalize education and culture but rather to encourage it for the sake of public interest and without of course forgetting the marginalized in society. The citizen has the right to benefit from education and culture wherever he finds it in society without restriction to one institution or another.
Education, parents and teachers
There are various reasons why Christian and non-Christians families send their children in large numbers to the Terra Sancta schools. For example, the high level of care and attention given, a well known religious and moral ethic, reasonable tuition fees, excellent discipline and order, the teaching of religion given to students of other religious creeds, administrative management compatible with the characteristics of modern schools, and most importantly, a high regard for responsibility and professionalism among the teachers and administrative personnel.
The parents are the first educators of their children. This educational role is of vital importance. Later on they entrust this duty to the school so parents have the right to choose whatever school they wish their children to attend whether it be public or private. The civilian authority should always guarantee their freedom of choice.
Nobody doubts that the teachers play the primary role in this respect. They share in the rights enjoyed by the parents and assist in achieving the goals set forth for the good of their students. The educator is not merely an observer of the educational process but rather a leader, who assist his pupils to grow and develop. The real success or failure the education depends primarily on the teacher as well as the support given to teacher by the school administration. The teacher is a specialized person who is qualified to lead the youth towards a comprehensive education while encouraging and guiding them in the process of becoming responsive adults. Teachers should encourage personal initiative in their students stressing the importance of the service for others for man cannot be understood except through his recognition and love of others.
In order to make the educational process a success cooperation between the school and the parents is imperative. From time to time some problems will surface and cooperation is needed on both sides. Schools have their own internal difficulties and many teachers find it burdensome when parents attempt to interfere in school affairs. We realize that families are also facing internal problems as well. What is needed is a better understanding and relationship between them.
Religious indifference is a special characteristic in our days. There are many parents who do not practice their religious faith and such behavior adversely affects the spiritual dimension of their children. Terra Santa schools are committed in accepting all children of the lack of religious conviction of their parents. On the contrary, by refusing such children we will ultimately lose them. Our schools are here to guide and to instruct them in the way of Christian faith.
Hence, it is the duty of the teachers at the Terra Sancta schools to respond to this aim of our schools and to understand our religious and secular spheres. They must be ready to conduct constructive dialogues and to develop a deeper faith in their students. Both scholastic subjects as well as religious studies are a must as they become an avenue for faith.
If we do not adhere to the above ideas, we will find ourselves in an atmosphere of secularism and religious indifference. In such a case, we would wonder if it was worthwhile to bear all these sacrifices for the sake of keeping our schools which have nothing Christian except their name.
In the face of these sensitive educational tasks required from our teachers, it is important to give them thanks and to encourage them to persevere in performing this difficult task. We also ask all, priests, friars, sisters and seculars to achieve such excellence. So that we are better able to spread the spirit of learning, of education and of faith in our students.
The Church and religious education
The official educational institutions in the Middle East emphasize religious education but not for all members of society. In Israel, the official schools teach religious education to Jews and Moslems. Likewise, the majority of Arab countries teach religious education to Moslem students only, neglecting the rights of Christians. For this reason, there had to be schools, such as the Terra Sancta schools, to cover this deficiency in the educational systems in the Middle East.
Our schools give religious instruction for every student according to his particular religious convictions recognizing the right of each individual to maintain his own faith. We attempt in our schools to shun religious fanaticism while at the same time encouraging piety. For us, testifying for Christ means living our Christian life at school. We believe that the weakness of one of us: Moslems or Christians, does not mean the strength of the other, but the contrary, it strengthens the deviation from both Christians and Moslems .
We realize that we are a minority in this region of the Middle East. Yet, our minority still has deep historical roots in this region and we are committed in seeing that it does not vanish from our midst. For this area to flourish and develop the only alternative is for Moslems, Christians and Jews to live side by side in mutual respect. Promoting proper religious education for all peoples of this society will contribute towards peace, and understanding. The school thus becomes a model of coexistence among individuals embracing different religious convictions. Hence, every individual hopefully learns to accept and respect both their similarities and differences of one another. Through equality, citizens, whether they belonged to the minority or to the majority, become equal before the law.
As the school is a microcosm of local society, so should the Terra Sancta school become, in a way a small church for the local society. It should become a link between them. It certainly is an appropriate tool for dialogue between the church and the people and plays a principle role in communicating the church's message to its hearers. It is no wonder, therefore, that the church bestows a great importance upon the school. That is why the church always expects the state to respect its right and establishing the number of schools it deems appropriate for securing the religious education for all their students. It is the right and duty of the church to teach religious education to its children whether they are enrolled in Christian schools and universities or not. The primary duty of the church is to direct people in the way of salvation through the teaching of religion, which not only enhances and strengthens the faith, but also helps them to understand about their world, their life, and about themselves.
Our schools contribute in the understanding of the new world order because education is one of the most important missions that can be performed by a school for the service of society. The Christian education aims at educating the youth in order to help them reach Christian human maturity through the various stages of their faith. In other words, the purpose of religious education is to make the youth aware of the gift of faith.
The Terra Sancta schools emphasize the religious vision of the reality of life and attempts to provide a comprehensive education in all its dimensions and values. Therefore, it is the duty of these schools to secure a close harmony and coordination between faith and culture, between faith and life. In this way, faith does not dominate culture nor does it exploit it for its educational aims. Similarly, culture should not swallow or exploit faith for its own aims in this respect. On the contrary, there should be coexistence, harmony, and cooperation between the two in order to achieve the welfare of man. One will enrich the other.
Achieving such a harmony and cooperation today between culture and faith, is not an easy matter, because of the strong tendency towards secularism which attempts to present the religious values as only marginal and void of all meaning. In some instances, there are some extreme religious sects which actually diminish religious values through their methology a methology devoid of real meaning and goals.
Terra Sancta schools are distinguished by their call to faith, and if ever lost will consequently lose their identity and the reason for existence. Why?... because, they will lose the source of their inspiration the main support and the feature which distinguishes them from the rest of the educational, cultural and social institutions. They will simply disappear and vanish.
It is evident then that the religious vision represented in the call for freedom, justice, and work in achieving supreme religious values has been and still is one of the greatest and most noble educational aims in our schools. This religious aim must acquire special importance in this age where there is so much stress in the competitive economic, material and professional aspects of life. Our schools, however, have opted towards the opposite direction. We are more interested in providing a comprehensive human education within the spiritual, social and cultural arenas.
Non-Catholics and non-Christians
If we look back at the history of the Terra Sancta schools, we would find that the aims behind establishing these schools were primarily to provide a religious and then, a general education. In the sixteenth century, we read that the superiors used to encourage the establishment of schools in order to teach students the principles of reading, writing, mathematics, languages, religious singing and catechism. For this reason, admission was confined only to Catholic students.
Those were the needs at that period of time especially when the Middle East was in need of guides and special interpreters for the foreign tourists and pilgrims of the Holy Land. Our schools served the educational needs of their children. Furthermore, the school was considered the appropriate place for teaching children the principles of religion and later on a more advanced Christian religious education in order to assist them in facing the problems of life. Needless to say the atmosphere was tense at that time between Catholics and non-Catholics, and hence only Catholic students were admitted. Later on they began to admit non-Catholics as well at the request and insistence of their parents.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Franciscans realized that one of the defects of the educational system was that it was based on the differences in religious beliefs. Consequently, Terra Sancta schools finally opened their doors to Moslem students. Since that time the number of Moslem students have increased dramatically with some schools having an greater majority of Moslems. Jews, however, enrolled in our schools in small numbers especially before 1948. At present, the Terra Sancta schools has hired the services of a number of non-Christians teachers.
Terra Sancta schools believe in religious freedom and the freedom of conscience for the students, their families and the staff. Hence we have no imposition of one's religion beliefs on another. Since Christian religious education is generally neglected in other schools in the area, we obviously have to emphasize it in hopes of teaching our Christians the principles of their religion while at the same time raising their religious standard to that of their colleagues.
In regards to respecting religious freedom, the Terra Sancta schools did not hesitate to teach non-Christians the principles of their religion even though the Islamic and Jewish schools did not offer the Christian students the privilege of learning about their religion. Since the beginning of the 1960's of this century our schools have been teaching Islamic religious education to Moslem students together with the Christian religious education to Christian students.
The school reflects the picture of society in which it was established. It is a microcosm of society and a place where students learn how to live in a society with different religious convictions, whether they be Moslems or Christians , whether they are the majority, like the Moslems, or minority like are the Christians . This Christian minority should enjoy equality and not only tolerance, so that it can actively participate in building a society.
For the purpose of achieving the above aim, namely, equality among the members of society, our schools have opened their doors to all members of society. In our schools, the Christian student sits next to the Moslem student. Both discuss matters together and assist one another in acquiring knowledge. In a way, Both share in forming effective bricks for building a society where all members are equal in rights and duties irrespective of their different convictions.
It is only through this type of relationship that we are able to lay down a foundation for a real dialogue. With tolerance and coexistence comes the stage of equality where one accepts the other as he is with all his rights and privileges. Today they are studying together, tomorrow they will be living alongside each other and hopefully what they received in their schooling will become an off shoot of how they will be treating each other.
Franciscan Christian-Islamic dialogue
This dialogue must be founded on these basic principles:
A. "The Islamic-Christian dialogue should be based on the mutual acquaintance between Moslems and Christians". In the Christian school where there are Christian and Moslem students living together, many occasions will arise for mutual acquaintment. They will not only learn to tolerate each other, but they will have the same equal rights and duties without feeling inferior or superior. They will freely exchange ideas and thoughts in many areas and perhaps even in religious matters. All should participate in the educational, social, scientific and religious activities respecting the convictions of each other, while at the same time concentrating on those issues which unite them and avoiding those which alienate them. In this way they will be witnesses for their respective faiths through respect for others. Christianity, contrary to the other eastern religions, does not object to teaching each student the principles of their own religion, and God, who sees everything, will judge us and our good will and religious convictions.
B. "The Islamic-Christian dialogue should aim at ridding itself of the remnants of the ancient religious fanaticism where Christians and Moslems considered each other staunch enemies". In our schools groups of Moslems are living with Christians and vice versa, and barriers that once existed in the past, such as hatred, antagonism and antipathy tend to disappear. It is sad to say that in the past, fierce wars lasted for centuries because of religious conflicts. But with this mutual learning exposure between them a new era has dawned. We are here to cultivate love and fraternity, peace, and justice, and equality among all members of society regardless of the religious differences..
As mentioned earlier, under Turkish rule the local citizens, especially Christians, were discriminated for high positions in the state. Consequently, emigration was taking place in large numbers. Even under the age of independence, emigration did not diminish among the Christians. Unfortunately we are always faced with the possibility of Christians leaving the region. For instance, during the Lebanese war, more than one and a half million people, mostly Christians, emigrated from Lebanon. The magazine "Al-Watan Al-Arabi" wrote on August 3, 1990 that the emigration of Christians from the Middle East has increased noticeably, and if it continues the East would become completely void of Christians by the year 2025. The Magazine attributes the cause of this emigration to religious fanaticism in the Arab countries, Jewish racial fanaticism, the fear that Israel has the atomic bomb, etc.
In this respect the Terra Sancta schools, as well as other similar schools, endeavor to create a sound educational atmosphere in which Moslem and Christian students feel they are brothers having the same rights and duties. The school then becomes a microcosm where everyone lives side by side with mutual respect and harmony, while at the same time, providing a proper education. Hence our students can either pursue their university studies or work in their own society without thought of emigration. By providing the students with a solid secondary education, it will be easier for them to attend universities and excel in their fields while at the same time becoming productive members of their society.
Schools of the poor and the needy
In accordance with the spirituality of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan Order and the Custody of the Holy Land, the Terra Sancta schools cannot simply become public institutions of learning but should stress the importance of the whole person i.e. both spiritually and intellectually. None of our schools were ever intended to be schools for the privileged and wealthy. On the contrary, and for many centuries these schools were established to assist the poor providing them with their necessary needs such as books, stationery, and free meals.
Even today our schools are still supported by the Franciscans with the exception of those schools which are financed, either partially or totally, by the local governments. If we exclude the depreciation of buildings and the school furniture as well as the living expenses of the Friars and Sisters who run these schools, the Custody's annual deficit for example in its five schools in the Palestinian territories is about $1,500,000.00. This figure does not include school expansions programs, or repairs and renovations that are carried out annually in almost every school at the expense of the Custody. This deficit in the school budget is due to the fact that in many of our schools the tuition fees are symbolic and only cover a small part of the necessary school expenses.
Hence the aim of the Custody in building, establishing and running the schools is not simply material but rather educational and spiritual. We are here for to support the apostolic work of the Church by helping Christians to settle on this land and to remain here.
This is not much different from the evangelical spirit where it is said that the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister ( Mark 10:45 ). This is the reason why the Franciscan Order exists i.e. to serve all human beings in love and fidelity. The Franciscan Order, through its schools, provides services to all peoples and nations without discrimination for the sake of public good. We realize that our mission is not an easy one and that there will be many problems facing us. However, with God's help, we hope to overcome those problems. It was Christ who asked us to be open to all and to serve all. We ask him to bless our work, our personnel, our teachers, our students, and our schools so as to continue to carry out their comprehensive educational mission to help man achieve his personal dignity. We are all created in the image of God and we are all sons and daughters of Christ, the first Teacher.