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from issue no. 12 - 2006

An interview with Bishop Salim Sayegh

Praise for a job well done

Interview with Salim Sayegh by Gianni Valente

«In these parts the Lord understands Arabic, indeed He speaks it». For Salim Sayegh, Patriarchal vicar of the Latin Patriarchate for Jordan, the Christian schools in the country are the proof that good works can earn a good reception in any context, without needing to build battlements. As he sees it their success hides no particular secret. «Obviously», he says twinkling, «they are so appreciated by all because they work well».

Bishop Salim Sayegh during a ceremony in Wadi Karrar, in what Jordanian archaeologists indicate as the site of the baptism of Jesus

Bishop Salim Sayegh during a ceremony in Wadi Karrar, in what Jordanian archaeologists indicate as the site of the baptism of Jesus

The West Bank Christian schools are a fundamental part of the history of the nation...
SALIM SAYEGH: The Latin Patriarchate was a pioneer in the field of education in Jordan. Since the time of the Turks, wherever the priests of the Latin Patriarchate arrived, the first thing they did was open a school. To teach to people to read and write. Now the situation is different. The Ministry of Education is very organized, there are schools throughout Jordan, including many private schools that work wonderfully.
And in this new context what is the specific mission of the Christian schools?
SAYEGH: First of all they can help our good people, Muslims and Christians, not to shut themselves up in ghettos. For Christians and Muslims it’s an advantage to be able to live the first years of study together and then the secondary schools also. It’s a mixing together that helps social life.
Just that?
SAYEGH: The schools are the most important means that we have to hand to educate our children in the Christian faith, to introduce them to the parish and the liturgical life. Even today many of the seminarians of Beit Jala [the Patriarchate seminary, ed.] attended the Catholic schools of Jordan as children and boys.
The Christian schools have always enjoyed the favor of the Hashemite monarchy. Could things get worse if the political order of the country changed?
SAYEGH: I don’t think so. We live in the East, and the East is traditionalist. Having our schools comes, so to speak, under acquired rights, that nobody would feel like challenging. Also when the ministers were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood they never hinted at questioning the recognized role of the Christian schools. And then, to tell the truth: Jordan is a poor country, and when the Christian schools take upon themselves the responsibility for teaching and educating more than 20,000 pupils, for whom the State institutions don’t hand over a dinar, it’s a relief for the government also.
Many years ago you told us that in Jordan even the Muslim Brotherhood was no danger. Do you still think that?
SAYEGH: The Muslim Brotherhood has never resorted to violence in Jordan. There are many of them who get described as fundamentalists, but they are good people who only want to live their own faith. We know a great many of them, with some we are very friendly, we visit each other, everyone respects the other and there is no difficulty. Then there are also others who are social climbers, who are trying to win a position, but that doesn’t bother us. Finally, among the rougher and more ignorant there are some aggressive ones. That happens. It’s normal. Things that happen in life. But bad feeling and enmity towards Christians is not the rule, it’s the exception. Prisons exist for that: they are for bad people who don’t want to respect the law.
In Europe many people assert that Muslim re-awakening must be answered with firmness. And reciprocity demanded.
SAYEGH: One needs to be objective. Here we Arab Christians are the minority. Here the «boss» is Muslim. When the Muslims go to Europe they find others bosses. But in our country the boss has arranged things in a very balanced way. Let me give you an example that would be unthinkable in Europe: here in Jordan, out of the one hundred and twenty seats in Parliament, nine must be assigned to Christians by law, others instead go to the Circassians, the Bedouins and the other minorities, so that all are guaranteed their rights.
You paint an idyllic picture.
SAYEGH: The problems come with the weddings between Christians and Muslims. Then religion come into it. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim and she does not convert to Islam, she has no right to inheritance and cannot in any case educate the children as she wants and, if the husband dies, cannot keep the children. But that is the law, which always favors the Muslim spouse. That is why we never give dispensation to mixed weddings of the kind.
Meanwhile, on your borders the Middle East is in flames. And many in the West put the blame on Islam.
SAYEGH: The West has never understood what Islam is and what Muslims are. Otherwise it would have acted differently on the Palestinian issue, that has dragged on for nearly a century. It would have acted differently on the Iraqi issue. And from wanting to trample on people, as has happened in Iraq or Palestine, this is what happens.

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