I wrote this article back in the autumn for publication in a few Scottish Episcopal Church newsletters, hoping that some congregations might be interested in forming a link with Christ Episcopal School in Nazareth.
I meant to post it here before Christmas but … well, you know what life is like in the run up to Christmas.
As I write this from my desk overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot have just passed, and the town has once again quietened. As a Christian minister at the Church of Scotland, my thoughts are beginning to turn towards Advent preparation and Christmas joy, but it is a strange experience observing Advent in a town where Christians are a tiny minority. There will be no decorations in shops in Tiberias, no lights on the streets, no Christmas carols playing. Christmas will pass as an ordinary day.
Christians make up roughly 2% of the population of Israel today. But amongst the local Arab Palestinian Christian communities, many families can trace their ancestors back to the time of Christ. The Christian communities may be small, but their witness is strong and they serve their neighbours by offering healthcare, hospitality and education to all, regardless of race or religion. In Nazareth alone, for example, there are thirteen Christian schools.
One of these schools, Christ Episcopal School, I’ve come to know through my links with the Episcopal Church in Israel-Palestine. Founded by the Church Missionary Society, it began in the 1850s as a school in the heart of the market in Nazareth providing education for the children of the community. In 1996, it moved to its current site, on a hillside overlooking the city.
Today its primary and secondary school classrooms are filled with 1200 students, approximately 80% of whom are Muslims and 20% Christians. This roughly reflects the wider demographic of Nazareth, where Christians make up one-third of the population.
Shortly after the 2016/17 school year began, I visited Christ Episcopal School to learn more about its experience as an Arab Christian School within Israel, the challenges it faces and its hopes for the future.
Archdeacon Samuel Barhoum has been President and Director General since August 2015. His tenure got off to a rocky start when the Christian schools in Israel went on strike to protest a cut in funding which resulted in Christian schools receiving less than one-third the subsidy granted to Jewish schools. 33,000 students across Israel were affected by the month-long strike, which ended when the government promised to pay 50 million shekels (approximately £10 million) as retroactive compensation for previous years to the Christian schools by March 2016. That deadline has come and gone and the money has not yet been received.* Financial pressures are one of the main challenges the school continues to face.
But the month of strikes gave Archdeacon Samuel the opportunity to review the state of the school and begin developing a vision for the future. He is full of ideas.
When I asked him about the school’s aims, he replied that it seeks to provide a safe space of dialogue and living together for Christian and Muslim Arab children living in Israel. The students are taught how to live as a minority in Israel (Arab Palestinians make up about 20% of the population of Israel). They learn about human and civil rights and are empowered to stand up for their rights and the rights of others in a respectful way.
‘What are your dreams for this school?’ I asked Archdeacon Samuel.
‘The school closes at 3pm each day and doesn’t open again until 7.30 the next morning,’ he says. ‘I want to have it open in the afternoon, like a community centre, a cultural centre. We are working to have a music and arts school in the afternoon which will be accredited by the Ministry of Education. I want this school to be different; I don’t want us to only teach the traditional subjects. Not all students want to be doctors and lawyers, and we need to open new horizons for them.’
I could hear the excitement and passion in his voice as he described photography and graphic design courses, a new lab for media studies, a dance studio, and even an icon drawing class. ‘How can churches and Christians back in Scotland help you to realise some of these dreams?’
‘First of all, I would like to invite them to come and see for themselves. And I hope that if they saw for themselves, that would open new horizons for them of how to help. We would like to have people work with us here as volunteers. They could work with the students; they could help with administration; they could help in fundraising.’
One of Archdeacon Samuel’s big plans is to convert a beautiful wooden building into volunteer accommodation. Once the teachers’ lounge, he wants to divide the space into bedrooms and install bathrooms and a kitchen. ‘One of the main problems attracting volunteers,’ he said, ‘is that we have nowhere to house them. But this way, they will have accommodation. And they can live in the Holy Land, in Nazareth, in the city of the Annunciation.’ He paused and then laughed. ‘They can work with Jesus’ cousins!’
Church bells rang in the distance.
‘People in Scotland are going to be reading this right about the time they are preparing for Christmas, so Nazareth will be very much on their minds.’
‘So that’s our Christmas campaign: Come work with Jesus’ cousins!’ he smiled. He continued, ‘I would like to tell all the West … to keep us in their prayers. Know that those tiny little communities, the indigenous Christians, here since Jesus’ time, still ring the bell of the church every day, still worship … We are here keeping Christianity alive. I don’t want their grandchildren to come here after 50 years and visit holy shrines as stones, as museums, and with no witness, with no worshippers.
At the same time, we are not icons in the church. We are human beings. We have our dreams. We have our thoughts. We have our goals. We have our lives. We want to fulfil our dreams. And with their help, we feel we are not a minority. Because Jesus is the one who bonds us together, all the baptised people together in one body.’
At this time of year, we celebrate a significant event which took place in the town of the Annunciation over 2000 years ago, when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and a miracle occurred in the midst of the ordinary; God became flesh. This season, let us hold in our prayers communities who are keeping the faith alive in the troubled land of the Holy One, communities like Christ Episcopal School who today embody God’s love for all people and whose ceaseless pursuit of respect, coexistence and equality is nothing short of a glimpse of of that kingdom which broke through onto this earth when our Lord was born that first Christmas.
* The money is starting to come through to the schools, though I’m not sure whether Christ Episcopal has received its.