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Abba Pascal Catholic Girls’ School was built with the aim of forming skilled and empowered women. Abba Berhanu is proud to tell the story of three girls from a poor family who all studied at Abba Pascal: The eldest earned a scholarship to continue her education in Canada, while the twins now both pursue degrees in medicine.

“In Ethiopia, our mothers often don’t have the same rights as our fathers,” says Bethlehem Mekete, a 17-year-old student with long braids and a blue uniform. “In public schools, it’s the same — boys have superiority. But here, we are free to learn, to play, to ask.”

In this school for girls, Catholics amount to only 3 to 4 percent of students, Abba Berhanu explains. Most students are Orthodox, Muslim or Protestant. The priest emphasizes the school’s equal treatment of students from all religious backgrounds. “When they come, they don’t know whether it’s a Catholic school or not, but they know there is fair treatment.”

“We are a family here; there is no conflict,” says Yordanos Isayas, 15. A short girl with kinky hair, she was recently elected as the prime minister of the school’s Youth Parliament. She adds that all students are taught discipline and self-confidence, as well as how to help the needy, whatever their background.

Catholic schools in Ethiopia face unique constraints. They may not display a crucifix or teach the catechism as they do elsewhere. Religious education cannot be overt, as the government forbids it.

The priests take this in stride, confident that Catholic values can nevertheless be instilled through education. Teachers constantly exhort students to be conscious of their behavior, whether in the classroom or at home, among their parents, relatives and friends.

“We’re working day and night ... trying to teach the students values based on what Jesus taught the apostles,” Abba Berhanu says. “He’s our model of teaching hard work, personal responsibility, respect, connectedness to nature, etc.”

“We sort of teach indirectly the Ten Commandments,” he adds.

The priest attributes the government’s prohibition of teaching religious morality to the attitudes and methods found in certain religious schools.

“They become exclusive instead of being inclusive,” he explains.

This inclusiveness is one of the reasons why 59-year-old Kassahun Tegegne decided to send his daughter to Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School in Gondar, in northern Ethiopia.

The capital of the Ethiopian Empire from the 17th to the 19th century, the city includes architectural and religious treasures that bring thousands of tourists every year. At the break of dawn, one can see dozens of women in white veils walking silently to the Orthodox churches to pray.

At Debre Selam Mariam School, most of the children are Orthodox. Mr. Tegegne’s daughter, Kidist Kassahun, is no exception. Sitting in his modest house, with numerous pictures of family members and icons of Jesus hanging on walls made of grass and mud, Mr. Tegegne reflects on what is most important for his daughter. The teachers at his daughter’s Catholic school, he says, help their students to respect others, to be ethical and faithful to God.

How successful are they?

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