Healing power of faith

21st September 2001 at 01:00
As the US attacks focus minds on violence committed in the name of religion, Jerusalem head Chris Wright says church schools such as his are a beacon of hope, not a breeding ground for conflict

HIS month a suicide bomber killed himself and injured 12 others yards from our school gates inJerusalem. In Belfast, children suffered at the hands of a bomber as they walked to primary school.

These events happened in the week the UK Government published its White Paper, which proposes raising the number of faith schools. It is feared that such a move will result in social and racial segregation and conflict. But far from being what union chief Bill Morris refers to as a "time-bomb" that threatens to increase racial tension, faith schools can be places of inspiration and harmony in situations that seem hopeless.

Faith schools openly recognise that they are not just there to top the league tables. They are cultivators of pupils' spirits and souls. They acknowledge the positive role of faith in creating morally responsible people. Their vision for the school community is often larger than that of a secular school. They are not insular but look out into the wider world. The way in which we in Jerusalem have worked out our vision is but one example of the contribution faith schools can make.

The Anglican International School is in the heart of West Jerusalem. It serves a rich diversity of students aged three to 19. There are 34 nationalities, including Muslim and Christian Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Our vision is simple but hard to live out. It contains three elements. First, it celebrates the sacredness of life. In a city where life is often cheap, we teach that each person is precious because everyone is created in the image of God. This must inform our relations with each other and, yes, our politics. There should be no bullying and no superiority. We should love and care regardless of faith or tradition. When an 11-year-old Palestinian girl reflecting on the year says to me, "I was brought up to hate Jews but I'm finding that very difficult", then that's what the school is all about.

Second, our goal is to search for truth. We are not only conveyors of knowledge, we want our pupils to be critical thinkers not just transmitters of society's stereotypes, hatred and prejudice. But the search for truth is far from simple. It takes courage to enter into dialogue with "the other side" and recognise a different opinion.

One way in which we have tried to work with pupils is to reflect critically upon events around them, and especially the language used in this conflict: Israelis speak of Palestinian "terrorists"; whilst Palestinians call suicide bombers "martyrs". Such an exercise is challenging in a class with Palestinians and Israelis, as well as international pupils. However, it is our duty to educate our pupils to be responsible global citizens. This means providing them with new paradigms in which to think.

Truth is an important pre-requisite for reconciliation. In our school it is important that all people can tell their story without fear of being laughed at or disbelieved, be it an account of a night in Israeli Gilo as gunfire invades their sleep, or a night in a Palestinian pupil's house in Beit Jala occupied by Israeli soldiers. Marie Christopherson, 16, says: "It still is possible to cross the boundaries. In this school, after all, all sides come together."

Third, we want our pupils to be compassionate and serve others. We have put in place a community service programme. The Student Council arranges clothes and food collections to go to those caught in the conflict. Students travel weekly to help in orphanages and have organised charity appeals for those suffering in Mozambique.

Faith schools have a vital role to play in today's society. They draw attention to important values in danger of being lost. They offer an important message about what it means to be a responsible citizen. In an international context, they point the way forward to what it may mean to live in a global village. Far from being divisive they should be celebrated for the values that they can inspire.

Chris Wright is director of the Anglican International School, Jerusalem

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