Christian schools in the Middle East: a challenge of civilization
Christian schools in the Middle East: a challenge of civilization – by Msgr Pascal Gollnisch, General Director of l’Œuvre d’Orient
In a torn region where international tensions, extreme violence, discouragement and weariness seem to be concentrated, Christian schools appear as a vehicle for reconciliation and hope. Mostly French-speaking, they care to put themselves at the service of an authentic humanism and carry the values of freedom, fraternity, equality, values to which the people of the Middle East aspire even if they do not always have the means to express it.
For centuries, Christian schools have welcomed Christian and Muslim students, boys and girls, from rich and poor families, sometimes very poor, who learn to know and respect each other in their otherness and differences. The executives of these countries have often been trained in these well-known and respected establishments, which are located in the heart of the big cities as well as in the remote countryside.
For more than 160 years, l’Œuvre d’Orient, initially created under the name of Œuvre des écoles d’Orient, supports these numerous schools of catholic education in the Middle East, with moderate means, but with passion.
Today, four hundred thousand students receive instruction in French, whether in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, or the Holy Land. The French language, taught in these institutions, has the capacity to open hearts and minds towards a true respect for the diversity of cultures. It is a bearer of a humanism, which the most deprived, the most disarmed, if not the most discriminated or persecuted can claim, humanism that puts the dignity of man at the heart of all action.
Teachers working in these schools carry encounters between different cultures, traditions and religions. They are aware of working to promote secularism and citizenship. They have the desire to serve the beauty of all life where the sick or disabled child has its place. They care about a vision of society that turns its back on violence, where everyone is recognized in the wealth it carries. Even before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, which emphasizes the fact that “every man is called to grow because every life is a vocation”, they made young people aware that each of them represents a sacred history and that the land where they are born, live and die is a sanctuary.
This educational action promotes what is called an inclusive society. These French-speaking institutions now extend to universities or academies supporting research in many fields. These structures make it possible to train the elites of tomorrow who will put the respect and the dignity of the man at the heart of their profession. The challenge is also to recognize the proper place of minorities and a secularism that is not an imitation of that prevailing in Western societies but the development of a model faithful to the personality and aspiration of the populations of the Middle East.
Francophonie in Catholic schools in the Middle East sometimes seems to be a forgotten, if not obsolete, Francophonie. Yet it is not a fossilized witness of the past, nor an instrument of power, it is an integral part of the present civilization. Who knows that in the Gaza Strip there are three Catholic schools, run by admirable nuns, made up of 99% Muslim students?
These establishments in the Holy Land face many difficulties. But trials do not stifle their hope, their freedom and their imagination.
The French State, particularly via l’Œuvre d’Orient, played an important role in the history of these schools, in their evolution. In Israel, Palestine and Jordan, these institutions know that they can count on the remarkable support and deep friendship of the Réseau Barnabé de l’Enseignement catholique (Barnabé Catholic Education Network), which l’Œuvre d’Orient has a partnership with since 2011.
One question remains: what is the project for societies in the Near and Middle East, including the Holy Land? As an educator we must certainly consider young people, take them into account but we can not educate the adults of tomorrow without having an idea of the society that we want to build with them and for them.
The ultimate challenge is peace and the conditions it demands.
We know that Samuel Huntington feared that the next conflicts would not be territorial or economic but civilizational, he concluded nonetheless that civilization will be the best way to avoid wars.
French-speaking schools in the Middle East, and especially in the Holy Land, are a key element of this civilization of peace that the Mediterranean needs.