31 October 2014
Students perform a folklore dance at the Franciscan School in Abou Kir, Egypt. (photo: Sean Sprague)
In 2002, we took readers to northern Egypt, to a remarkable school run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross:
Abou Kir is a suburb of Alexandria, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean. A fishing village that today numbers about 300,000 people, it has a mixed religious population — about 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, the latter mostly Coptic Orthodox. This proportion of Christians is relatively high for Egypt, where the average Christian presence is less than 10 percent. Abou Kir’s Catholic school welcomes children of all faiths; here peaceful coexistence is understood as being part of the curriculum — and also of life. Of the student population, 55 percent of the children are Muslim and 45 percent are Christian. Of the school’s 34 teachers, 10 are Muslim and 24 are Christian.
“The continuation of a Christian presence here is very important,” Sister Zeina says.
“We offer a service to the local community by teaching Christians and Muslims to love one another.”
In a land where sectarian violence and mutual suspicion between the two religions are, sadly, not unusual, Sister Zeina holds firm to the belief that Christian and Muslim children need to be educated and grow up in a climate that fosters mutual respect.
“It is my conviction that they must be raised together,” she says.
The hustle and bustle in the muddy streets outside, with their horse carts, piles of garbage and pollution-belching, thundering trucks, was in marked contrast to the cleanliness and order of the school. I stepped across its threshold into a bright sanctuary for learning.
A spotless playground was bounded on two sides by the gleaming new four-story building. A third side was occupied by the old building, which had recently received a fresh coat of paint. Apartments overlook the fourth side. On the day of my visit, some curious women sat on their balconies, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the all-school assembly in the courtyard.
Some 495 freshly scrubbed children in immaculate uniforms — bright red pullovers for the primary school, navy blue for the kindergarten and preparatory ages — were lined up in perfect formation. They saluted the Egyptian flag and sang the national anthem. A favorite Franciscan hymn followed. Sister Zeina then took the microphone and sweetly crooned a couple of Arabic lullabies, accompanied by a teacher on the organ. Then it was time for folklore class, and 12 girls in native Egyptian costume strutted out to perform a dance.
Their school assembly and folklore class completed, the children then filed from the playground into their classrooms — all smiles, hand in hand.
Read more about how the Franciscans were bringing learning to life in the May-June 2002 issue of the magazine.
Tags: Egypt Children Education Christian-Muslim relations Catholic education