Fuad Giacaman about Moslem-Christian education

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“The Political Context is Always There.”

Fuad Giacaman, head of AEI’s Interreligious program and AEI’s co president, speaks out about inter-religious learning in Bethlehem, in an interview made for the German organization Kindermissionswerk.

“The Arab Palestinian Christians have been one of the original ethnic, religious and social components of Palestine since early Christianity. Initially they were, demographically speaking, the majority of the people living in Palestine. After the Arab Muslim conquest in 638, more and more became Muslims. Now the Palestinian Christians constitute approximately 1,5 to 2% of the Palestinian population. Their presence is mainly in what is called the Christian Triangle of the Bethlehem district: Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. There are also some Christian communities in East-Jerusalem, Ramallah and surrounding villages. There is a small Christian community in Gaza. In total the Christian population is around 50,000 – 55,000.

Their current situation is not good at all, and not different from Moslem Palestinians. All suffer from the repressive measures of occupation such as the permit system/travel restrictions, land expropriations, construction of the Separation Wall, arrests, killings, economic pressures.

A main problem Christians face is their dwindling numbers due to the general political and economic situation. This causes many Christian families, and especially youth, to emigrate. Landowners sell their land.

The difficult political and social situation has left a great impact on the Palestinian Christians’ daily life, in many ways. First, some of our children have been suffering. Some were injured, others killed during various activities of peaceful resistance against the occupation. Some Christian children have been facing traumas, in the same way as Muslim children, during Israeli incursions into the occupied territories. Some children are witnessing violent scenes, whether clashes between Palestinian activists in their own environment, or on TV. Many saw horrible scenes of devastation, and the killing of children in Gaza, as well as the impact of house demolitions on whole families.

The concentration of school children decreased as reported by school teachers and educators. As a result of the economic pressures at homes some children were forced to leave school and go to beg and look for work to help their parents.

The quality of education is not as it used to be before the occupation. Lately, the decrease in the Palestinian Authority’s budget due to Israel’s withholding tax revenues affected school services, facilities, equipment and the teachers’ performance.

Relations in general friendly

The relations between the two components of the Bethlehemite society, Moslem and Christian Palestinians, are in general friendly. Relations look normal at schools where Christians and Muslims study together, or at working places, universities and in the streets. Sometimes, as during car accidents or incidents or conflicts among two individuals or two groups, religious prejudices erupt but rarely lead to violence.

When hot discussions on certain religious issues or political ones arise, sensitivities come up. This depends on whether the persons involved deal wisely with such issues. It sometimes depends on the depth of understanding of each other’s religion and the respect for equal rights and duties for all citizens. The recent growth of religious and extreme organizations, such as ISIS, have to some extent increased sensitivities, fears and doubts among the two sections of the Palestinian society. So far nothing has happened that constitutes a serious threat. Personally, I notice that there are anxious reactions among Christians after the horrible scenes of killings and rapes by ISIS, and the burning and destruction of churches and civilizational sites in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt.

Religion in children’s daily life

Religion and traditions are very important in the children’s daily life. The majority of both Christian and Muslim children are still influenced by these religious traditions. Usually, those are considered to be “religious” who stick to fasting, praying, and going to mosques or churches. Only few can be called Christian or Muslim believers in my personal understanding of the difference between faith and religiosity. Sometimes we hear about misunderstandings and hot discussions about religion and especially dogmas. This may lead to tension among children, even friends.

Interreligious prejudices that may arise in class typically concern: trinity, Jesus as God, the Prophet Muhammad, the Crusades, the Christians of the Orient vs the Christians of the West, and the status of non-believers. 

That is why AEI teachers in the inter-religious project focus on shared values and common beliefs rather than dogmatic differences.

We promote respect and tolerance by setting up rules in class. We ask students to avoid discussions about dogmatic differences but in case they come up each student has to listen carefully and respectfully. He or she is not asked to accept a belief but to respect it. We try to bring up common values, beliefs and stories from the two faith traditions and analyze and conclude the common gist in the lessons. The fieldtrips to holy and historical sites help a lot to respect and accept one another. Mixing and mingling help the students to discover the human spirit in each one and respect the other as equal citizen but different in religion. When students are together in interreligious joint lessons with their Christian and Muslim religious education teachers they discuss the many similarities between the religions. This enhances and deepens respect and tolerance.

Children’s reactions

The children’s reactions to the joint Moslem-Christian lessons have been very positive. Until now almost all students have accepted to be in the project. Students from other grades demanded to join too. The students love to be together as Muslims and Christians in the same religious studies lesson. They express contentment and joy. Many informed the school administrations that such joint lessons help them to come together and overcome prejudgments. The different stories about Christian-Muslim living together that have come up during the past years proved to be of great benefit. The students consider the joint lessons as an innovative technique in a modern active learning approach. The same applies to the new methods AEI applied: RRCA (Read, Reflect, Communicate and Act), moral dilemmas, fieldstrips, singing, drama, story writing and celebrating joint feasts.

Children are curious about subjects like mercy or compassion in Islam; nonviolence in some Quran verses; moral rules like “Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you” - the Golden Rule in both Islam and Christianity - ; the Holy Spirit; the role of the Caliph; the values of tolerance, citizenship and respect for diversity and difference; the meaning of God’s love; and religion in relation to political issues in the wake of, what was called, the Arab Spring.

Prejudices can come up in relation to the dogma of trinity; Jesus as God for the Christians; Christians and Crusaders, the status of non-believers; political Islam, and terrorism. 

Political context

The political context is always there because of the occupation. The political context is also present due to the marginalization and neglect of the Palestinian cause as a result of the international community’s silence on Israeli policies, as well as the rise of extreme elements like Israeli settlers, ISIS and some Christian fanatics. However, AEI has been aware of these influences and introduced and debated political issues from different Islamic and Christian perspectives.

Of course we also speak about Judaism because for Christians the Old Testament is part of the Bible. Many topics about Judaism have been addressed throughout the history of the project. The relations with the Jewish people and the differences between Israel, Jews, Judaism and Israeli occupation have been well dealt with in order to decrease prejudices and lack of understanding, and also to prevent hate among adherents of the three religions. In fact, the Living in the Holy Land: Respecting Differences project was started in the second half of the 1990s by the recently deceased Dr Jacobus Schoneveld, a Dutch reverend with a history of improving inter-religious relations especially in  the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue, and I felt always inspired by his informed and objective approach. May his soul be blessed.

Friendships

Sometimes children develop lasting Muslim-Christian friendships thanks to the interreligious program. Many of the essays our students write each year show examples of friendships across religious borders. Teachers and school principals have reported that cordial friendships developed during the school year. Because of their informality, the fieldtrips create a good atmosphere for friendships.

The parent’s role is of great importance in the project. Some parents have been participating in the two-day workshop at the end of the academic year. They offer their knowledge and skills. Some give much feedback about the activities. Some parents testify of their children’s involvement and participation during the preparation and writing of the story essays. Their involvement with their children on this subject is good proof of their cooperation. They accept the objectives and activities of the project. This cooperation motivates the students, teachers and school principals. It tells them, as well as the community, that the program is vital. This is the way we can make a difference and change in our society. Fanaticism and extremism will decrease when we become good models and good citizens and learn about one another’s religions in the proper way. Many parents cooperate with the schools and give administration and teachers the green light to continue with the inter religious lessons as a kind of “preventive education”. “In this way we can provide our children with the weapons to fight extremism, whether Christian or Muslim,” as one parent said.”

15 April, 2015

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