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from issue no. 12 - 2006

Catholic Schools in Jordan

Small miracles among the benches

A visit to the Catholic schools of the Hashemite Kingdom. The history and the present situation of a Christian presence that has always enjoyed social consent even among the Muslim majority

by Gianni Valente

At eight in the morning, as on every blessed day, after loitering for the bell, the boys of the «Holy Land» College settle down in silent rows in the yard of the school, split into classes, under the serious gaze of Abuna Rashid, the headmaster. While little Khalid does the flag-raising hoisting a «mini» flag of Jordan, all the others, Christian and Muslim, together invoke the only God the Father of all («Lord, bless us, our country and our school. Enlighten our minds and grant us peace»). Then the music starts up, and as good citizens, some with more ardor, some listlessly, they strike up the national anthem («Long live the King, long live the King! High is his renown, sublime is his rank. Up with the flags!»).
Then they swarm noisy and cheerful along corridors and into classes where, apart from the crucifixes and the portraits of King Abdullah II, during recent weeks cribs have also made their appearance, along with Santa Claus and the other Christmas decorations. No veiled mother, no mosque-going father has made any complaint.
Over what is now the side entrance appears the date «1948», the year the school was founded. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was taking its first uncertain steps in the Middle East minefield and the monks of the Custody of the Holy Land had just put up their school on the hill of Habdale, and still today it is one of the most respected in the country and in the whole Middle East. Their founder Saint Francis, had spoken clearly in his first Rule of 1221: the friars who go among the Muslims «are not to make quarrels or disputes», but are at the service of all. A task that has been respected. In their way, the period photos hanging on the walls – with a young King Hussein surrounded by friars, then with Prince Hasan and other members of the royal house attending school ceremonies – express the unbroken gratitude of the young Muslim nation, ruled by kings who proclaim themselves descendants of Muhammad, for the work done by the Franciscan college and all the other Christian schools for the benefit of the Arab youth of the West Bank. «We are proud of our Christian schools, for the irreplaceable contribution they make to our society. There are never any problems with them. They always respect the ministerial rules about the number of the students per class, the curriculum and the text books», Abd al-Majid al-Abbady, a high official in the Ministry of Education’s Department for private schools confides with satisfaction and gratitude.
Since in many Middle Eastern countries the working presence of Christians looks like a foreign body in a slow but inexorable process of extinction, the vitality and the social rootedness of the Christian schools in Jordan make them thereby an «interesting case».

A good thing for everybody
In Karak, 130 kilometers south of Amman, the outline of the Crusader castle looms far away in a desert landscape barren of any resources, on and under the ground. Of the fortress, where the bloodthirsty prince Reginauld de Chatillon, grim symbol of Christendom in arms, went mad, there remain some crumbling ruins. Whereas the small school of the Latin Patriarchate is lively and full of voices, still there where it was founded in 1876 by Don Alessandro Macagno, the mythical Abuna Skandar, who preached the Gospel to the tribes of Christian Bedouins scattered beyond the Jordan, living as they did in tents, and carrying with him a portable altar for celebrating the Eucharist. At that time the Ottoman governor did not want to grant permission: it was the inhabitants of the zone, Christians and Muslims together, who broke down resistance. The Muslim Bedouins had also understood that only good could come from that humble and pious man who taught them to read and write, while of the local representatives of the Ottoman power apparatus they knew only their brutal usurpations and greed for bribes.
Of the fortress, where the bloodthirsty prince Reginauld de Chatillon, grim symbol of Christendom in arms, went mad, there remain some crumbling ruins. Whereas the small school of the Latin Patriarchate is lively and full of voices, still there where it was founded in 1876 by Don Alessandro Macagno, the mythical Abuna Skandar, who preached the Gospel to the tribes of Christian Bedouins scattered beyond the Jordan, living as they did in tents, and carrying with him a portable altar for celebrating the Eucharist
In the second half of nineteenth century the schools set up across the Jordan by the priests of the newly established Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem were the first to be opened in a closed and marginal world, wholly regulated by the harsh social laws of tribalism. To teach the ignorant is a work of spiritual mercy. And the teaching offered to all – Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, tribes from the north and tribes from the south – was the key that allowed the apostolic witness to take root in barren soil, in rural or desert areas, that for centuries had seen no Catholic pastoral initiative. Still today, in Karak as in Salt, in Hoson as in Ajlun, in Ader as in Anjara, the buildings of the parochial schools form a single block with the church, and all educational activity is carried out under the ultimate responsibility of the local parish priest.
Thanks to their pioneering plantatio, the Catholic schools of Jordan time ago acquired full title to citizenship in the country. When the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan was created, the school network of the Latin Patriarchate – soon flanked by the large colleges set up in Amman by Catholic religious congregations – was still the only existing «native»
educational system.
Today, in a Jordan troubled by indecipherable socio-economic processes set going also from the neighboring conflicts, even education has become a business. The competition is ever more oppressive. In the well-off suburbs of the capital new private commercial schools with high-sounding and aggressive names are springing up at frenzied pace rhythms: Modern American School, Cambridge School, Islamic College, al-Shweifat School... Doing their job well – the modest ambition of their everyday Christian witness – is becoming the guarantee of economic survival for the teachers and staff of the Catholic schools.
In the Christian village of Fuheis, in the entrance hall of the school built next to the parish church dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the image of the Virgin that greets one on entering seems to gaze with maternal curiosity at the poster set alongside, with a list of the best pupils who, class by class, earned the highest marks in the yearly exams. The constant public monitoring of the progress of every single pupil in Jordanian schools can seem an «efficientist» syndrome imported from the outside. A frenzy for results that can stir up ferocious competitive instincts and disheartening frustrations among the pupils. But it is only by joining in the game that the Christian schools still demonstrate today the high standards of education they are in a position to guarantee. An ingredient essential for holding onto the attraction that the Christian schools still exercise on Muslim families. Every year-end, the Ministry of the Education lists the ten best students in the various subjects. And every year some student from the Christian schools appears in the prestigious top ten, contributing thereby to the lustre and reputation of their own school. In Fuheis the names of the small national geniuses, hatched year by year, have even been engraved on the marble slab outside the entrance to the school, a precious record to display without hypocritical modesty.

Adeste infideles
Abuna Bashir passes like a thunderbolt with his cassock fluttering along the sunlit corridors of the parish school of Ader. He jokes with the children, shows the photos of trips and the premises used for the sewing school, also peers into the class where a teacher with a veil has collected the Muslim children for the Koran lesson. «They’re doing their catechism...», jokes the young parish priest. «For centuries here we’ve known that in order not to quarrel with the Muslims it’s better not to talk about doctrine and not to make religious speeches. The Muslim parents are keen to send children to our schools. They know that here they find a different atmosphere, where children grow well and nobody wants to impose anything on anybody.» An old custom, that not everybody understands. «Time ago, an American protestant missionary wanted to know how many Muslims I had christened here in the last year. I said that converting Muslims was not my problem. So then he asked me what my problems were. I told him that I hoped to help Christians in being happy with being Christian. And that’s it.»
The parish of Christ the King in Misdar, in the center of Amman

The parish of Christ the King in Misdar, in the center of Amman

The more recent statistics show that in school year 2005-2006 almost half of the more than 23,000 pupils in the Catholic schools in Jordan were children of Muslim families. More than a quarter of the almost 1,900 staff – teaching and non-teaching – of the Christian schools are also followers of the Prophet. The tacit rule of avoiding any religious controversy is written in the DNA of the Christian schools, a legacy of centuries of uninterrupted, if difficult, co-existence between the Muslims and the Christian tribes of the West Bank. But the firm determination to prevent confessional conflicts does not mean wishful attempts at creating a «sterilized» religious atmosphere. Trust is put rather in practical habits distilled over decades of experience of Christian good sense: the banning of all direct or subliminal proselytism, separate religious instruction for Christians and Muslims, common prayers in which all can invoke the mercy of Allah, Lord of all. A mechanism of discretion and delicacy tuned to encouraged daily cohabitation, to defuse the spiral of suspicion in the folds of everyday life. In the hope of spreading antidotes to intolerance, also outside the classroom. «Our motto is: friends in school, friends in society», says Abuna Rifat Bader confidently, creator of a very much visited website in Arabic on the life of the Church (www.abouna.org) and in charge of the Wassieh school, the most recent of the schools of the Latin Patriarchate. «When someone has studied with us and found themselves at home, it’s difficult then to go around speaking badly about the Christians...». A bet backed by many small daily miracles that he sees happening in the classrooms, the courtyard and the corridors of his beautiful school that grew out of the desert six years ago, during the Jubilee year. While he is talking, the school choir is going over the Christmas recital, rehearsing scenes, nursery rhymes and songs in Arab, English, Italian. They also tell in gestures a story of two thousand years ago, a child born one cold night in a manger, not far from here. Some thirty children are singing. Nearly the half of them Muslim.

The hymn of Brother Emile
In the entrance of the highly respected «De La Salle» College of the Brothers of the Christian Schools a portrait of Pope Ratzinger hangs between those of King Hussein and King Abdullah. Brother Emile, the creative director of the college, has even put to music a hymn in honor of the Hashemite monarch. The religious, of Lebanese origin, lauds the stimulating effects that, in his view, co-habitation between Christians and Muslims produces also from the educational point of view («rub your brain against other people’s brain, and the spark will kindle»). But he explains without holding back devout deference towards the civil authorities: «We live a calm life because the king, the royal family and the government also are with us. The former prime minister and many ministers were students of ours. The current prime minister sent his children to school with us. While there is the king, we’re not afraid». And Sister Emilia also rolls off the names of Alia, Aisha and Zayn, the princess daughters of King Hussein who grew up among the benches of the school of the Nuns of the Rosary that she directs today. She lives without regrets and moans her Christian vocation spent in the service of the Muslim girls of Jordan. She browses with satisfaction through the articles and photos with the members of the royal family and the highest authorities of the country who have attended graduation days at the school. And she shakes her head at growing western obtuseness in grasping the factors in play in the delicate relationship between the Arab Muslim majority and Christian minorities in the Middle East. «The problems», she says, «have come to us from outside. And in any case the royal family knows how best to deal with them».
The fortuitous and the providential good will of the Hashemites towards all the Christian schools of the Kingdom does not express itself only in the generous willingness to attend inaugurations and end of year galas. From when, in the mid ’seventies, the Muslim Brotherhood – which has always had total freedom of action in Jordan – began aiming for hegemony in the educational field as a means towards the militant Islamization of society, the royal house has not hesitated to use its stabilizing role in concrete measures. At the end of the ’nineties, when in the universities professors linked to the Muslim Brotherhood deliberately chose 25 December as the date of the examinations, King Abdullah immediately satisfied the protests of the Christians by appointing Christmas and New Year’s Day as national holidays. In the weekly program the activities of the Christian schools are suspended both on Fridays and on Sundays, and every school can enjoy a holiday on the feast of their patron saint.
The counterpart to such royal predilection is absolute adherence to the programs of the ministry of education by Christian schools. Jadun Salameh, who has spent 28 years teaching Arabic in Christian schools, is the living representation of this reassuring respect for the circumstances. He has taught all his life and without problems a fundamental subject in all the school curricula, based in large part on the Koran and on the writings of the Prophet, the religious roots of the Muslim civilization in which he and all the Arab Christians are immersed. His respectful familiarity with the Muslim sacred writings and religious conceptions («some people found it hard to believe that I’m Christian») have helped him also decipher the complicated game of chess that is still being played around the Koranic inspiration of school books and programs.
Science lab of the «Holy Land» College

Science lab of the «Holy Land» College

The strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood towards schools had its success between 1989 and 1990, when, if only for a few months, the militants of Muslim «re-awakening» in Jordan got control of the Ministry of Education. But already for some time before the massive insertion of doses of the Koran in schools textbooks and hammering insistence on the «Islamic conquest» matched the clichés of the Islamist propaganda, with plenty of reference to the jihad against the unbelievers. But in recent years, after the peace agreement with Israel (1994) and still more after 11 September, the Islamist drift of school programs seems to have come to a halt. A shift openly inspired by the royal house.
In November 2004, a year before the bomb attacks in the Jordan capital, King Abdullah launched the famous «Message of Amman» with the purpose of «making clear to the world what is and what is not true Islam». An initiative wherewith the Hashemite dynasty aimed at reaffirming its own function as interpreter and guarantor of the «proper understanding» of the Muslim faith, presented as «a message of brotherhood and humanity, that supports what is good and forbids what is mistaken, accepting others and honoring every human being». The application of those guidelines in the scholastic field has resulted in the progressive disappearance from textbooks of poems, historical propaganda and quotations from the Koran that ran the risk of fundamentalist manipulation. «Now», Jadun Salameh says, «in the books one finds only conciliatory Koranic verses, in which the beauty of the creation and peaceful co-existence between peoples is lauded. No trace of holy wars, no summons for unbelievers to submit to Islam...».

A considerable help
If in Christian schools the effective co-existence of Christians and Muslims follows paths tried and tested in centuries of shared life, in the daily life of the kingdom such experiences are beginning to look more and more like happy islands, hangovers from a past to be mourned. It is quite clear – there is no need to even say it – that here, in the last few decades, someone has been progressively poisoning the wells of relative tolerance that were watering a more than millenarian co-existence. Nothing is as it was. The old habits of acquaintance that regulated relations between Christian and Muslim tribes on the West Bank are fading. When pupils from the Christian schools go on to university they get besieged in intimidating fashion by university teachers and zealous fellow students, inured in their own certainties, who feel called upon to indoctrinate the «poor fools», children of the Jordanian people who still believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Islamist movements, the invasive religious militancy engaged in public life, is becoming for many of them an asphyxiating spiritual mobbing.
The Catholic schools are managing to carry on their inward and little publicised mission: that of making the first steps in the social life of many Christian children easy, serene, free of trauma. Without building bunkers
In the face of this development the Catholic schools are managing to carry on their inward and little publicised mission: that of making the first steps in the social life of many Christian children easy, serene, free of trauma. Without building bunkers, in a open atmosphere, enabling them to grow alongside their Muslim contemporaries. Allowing them to enjoy, without even noticing, the fruits of the everyday gratuitousness that Christian charity lights up in the ordinary field of the usual occupations. Before the difficulties and the testing time arrive.
For Father Hanna Kildani, the man in charge of the schools of the Latin Patriarchate on the West Bank, this also means struggling with an account increasingly in the red. One of the economic outcomes of Middle Eastern chaos has been the paring down of the salaries of the middle class to which most of the Christian families belonged, those who considered the schools of the Patriarchate to be their own. More and more are asking for partial or total exemption from fees already largely insufficient to cover the costs of ordinary administration. The generous financial backing guaranteed by the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher all over the world can no longer cover the budget deficit. «The annual deficit of the patriarchal schools is growing in dizzying fashion. In Jordan alone it has reached two million dollars. But for our patriarch Michel Sabbah providing education for children of all Christian denominations is an uncancellable priority, if the emigration of the Christians from these lands is to be halted. We want to avoid in every way that Christian families should abandon our schools because they can’t make it with the money», explains Nader Twal, head of Communication for the Education Department of the Latin Patriarchate. Some parents take advantage of it. Others do what they can, bringing back, perhaps, the old system of payment in kind by giving olive oil. But the emergency is being faced without too much alarm by Father Hanna and his colleagues. Like their ancestors, accustomed to the precarious life of the Bedouin tent, they know that things will mend themselves, if Allah wills.

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