08/30/2022, 11.37
GATEWAY TO THE EAST
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Gaza parish priest: Christian schools foundations of 'truth, charity, freedom'

by Dario Salvi

 

After two years of closures and virtual learning, a new chapter opens for the Christian institutes in the Strip. Most of their students are Muslim, with respect for 'values and identity'. Palestinians cling to education as the path to redemption. The lockdown has resulted in increased agressivity and violence among young people, which can only be countered by rebuilding socialisation. 

 

Milan (AsiaNews) - The mission of Christian schools in the Strip is to "bear witness" to our faith "in a direct way, showing its values and respecting people's identity", also considering the fact that "most" of the pupils enrolled "are Muslims, and remain so".

This very clear idea of culture and sharing inspires the Catholic institutes in the Palestinian enclave, as Gaza parish priest Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, an Argentinean priest of the Incarnate Word, tells AsiaNews. He shares that even the Islamic majority "perceives something special" within them.

He emphasises, "this is freedom and respect for differences, without however falling into relativism because we are the first to be proud of our Catholic identity". 

Coexistence and dignity

There are five Christian schools in the Gaza Strip: three of them are Catholic, one Orthodox and one Protestant. There are just over a thousand Christians in the area, of whom 134 are Catholic. They represent a tiny percentage compared to the total of 2.3 million people living in what activists and NGOs have often dubbed an "open-air prison" due to the blockade imposed by Israel following the rise of Hamas.

There are two institutes linked to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem: the Latin Patriarchate Parochial School, which is also the oldest private educational institution in Gaza, with 210 pupils ranging from four to 14 years old, most of them Muslims (35 Christians in total) and about 90 employees, including teachers. In addition to this, there is the Holy Family School, from kindergarten to "Tawjihi", the preparation period for university exams; 630 pupils study there, of whom about 70 are Christians. 

Fr. Romanelli continues "we try to guarantee a good level of education, showing everyone that Christians and Muslims can coexist" and basing this coexistence "on the values that are proper to a Christian society and the Church". Starting with the "dignity of the human person, charity and respect for the truth about God and the world", a sort of "oasis where people of good will can quench their thirst, find comfort and receive an adequate level of education".

The fruits of this mission are far reaching, as the parish priest explains, drawing on an episode from the recent past: "Last year, the rector and some professors from a university in Gaza came to our school," he recalls, "to wish us Christmas greetings. Among them was a sheikh, a teacher of Islamic religion, who told me that he had studied with us up to sixth grade and those were 'the best years of my life'.

He fondly remembers Sister Abel, his teacher. Here, this shows the spirit of the school: while maintaining our identity, peace, justice and charity can be sown and everyone can make their own contribution to true reconciliation' between the two peoples of Israel and Palestine. 

Covid, virtual classrooms and relaunching schools

In these two and a half years of pandemic, the greatest challenge has been to ensure continuity in teaching amid lockdowns, distance learning, financial difficulties and a growing feeling of isolation and abandonment among the children.

"After two years of Covid-19, we are off again," emphasises Fr. Romanelli. "We seek personal contact, to shorten distances, to bring educator and educated together," he continues, "because we have seen in these two years that the boys, especially the adolescents, have cultivated a kind of violence both internally and among themselves.

This exacerbates an already critical situation with the disasters caused by the conflicts, from the May 2021 flash war to Israel's sudden attack at the beginning of August that took them by surprise'.

Not being able to leave the house has affected young people's personalities, so this year more than ever the school must also become a place to rediscover socialisation and heal the wounds of isolation, separation, and fear of contact generated by the virus.

The parish priest shares that the hope "is that it will be a year of academic freedom after closures and masks, which is precisely why we started in recent days [the school year has just begun, ed] with an open-day, a day of celebration to create a climate of trust among families and towards the school'.

This too, he adds, 'is a way to counter the growing violence among young people. This new phenomenon also affects teachers and educators. In the Arab culture it is strange to see a lack of respect, a violence towards the father, the teacher, towards the older authority, but this is another consequence of the two-year pandemic'. 

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Education, a value

"We are working to ensure that this year children and young people grow in their sense of belonging to the school, to the network of Catholic institutes and to Palestinian society as a whole," emphasises the director of the Latin Patriarchate school in Gaza.

"We want to offer," adds Um Fady, as she is called by teachers and students, "something concrete by guaranteeing education and culture. For the restart of the year, we have also prepared some gifts for the pupils, to encourage them after these last two years of difficulties caused by the pandemic". 

Palestinians are very attached to the value of education, attending school is of fundamental importance and they are aware that their future depends on it.

Christian schools guarantee added value for the high level of education, so much so that many Muslim families also choose them for their children knowing that "values and identity" are respected. Curiosity and desire for knowledge are also cultivated during the holiday months, when young people and children attend summer centres and language courses.

"This summer in the parish," the priest recounts, "we promoted a two-month school camp for 230 people, including 180 children and about 50 teenagers, almost a quarter of the Christians in Gaza. For a month we involved them from morning to evening with Mass, breakfast, religious lessons, games and competitions, musical moments, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and benediction before returning home".

Fr. Romanelli concludes, "we re all part of a single body, which is that of the patriarchate's schools throughout the Holy Land, while respecting the peculiarities of each territory from Jordan to Palestine to Gaza".
 

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