Education and interreligious dialogue focus in Galilee (WCC news)

Education and interreligious dialogue focus in Galilee (WCC news)

By Claus Grue*

In the old city of Acre, which is located by the Mediterranean sea in northern Israel, almost all Palestinian families are displaced. Poverty, discrimination and lack of motivation for education are some of the daily obstacles people face.

Yet, Acre is just one example of the enormous needs for humanitarian assistance evident among Palestinians throughout Israel.

An important player in promoting a better life for marginalized people in Galilee is the Nazareth-based International Christian Committee in Israel (ICCI), a certified and officially registered ecumenical Christian organization and an affiliate of the Department of Services to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR).

The ICCI runs a number of programs designed to empower marginalized Palestinians.

“Of the 1.8 million Palestinians in Israel, 8 percent are Christians, while 84 percent are Muslims and 8 percent Druze. We thus represent a minority within a minority. But in our work we follow Christian values which are to help needy people regardless of faith. We don’t differentiate”, says Hussam Elias, executive director of ICCI.

Interfaith dialogue, cross-cultural understanding and economic empowerment run like a thread through most initiatives taken by the organization.

Education is the focus of several programs, covering everything from interest-free student-loans and youth leadership programs for ninth graders to preventing young girls from dropping out of elementary school.

“The student loans are an encouragement to pursue an education. It works as a small push and goes mainly to students from poorer Arab homes”, Elias explains.

At the other end of the educational spectrum is a special program to encourage young girls to take responsibility for their future and stay in elementary school instead of dropping out, which is what too many girls have done already.

“This has been a serious problem in Acre, and it is of paramount importance that young girls believe in their future and understand the value of an education, both for themselves and the society they grow up in”, Elias continues.

Last year alone, 112 girls attended the program which includes workshops, therapy, self commitment projects and sessions on how to improve relations with parents and teachers.

Another program, which was launched last year in Me’elya, is targeted towards ninth graders and encourages them to take responsibility as youth leaders. It focuses on social skills, creative thinking and the values of shared responsibility, cooperation, team work, integrity and social awareness.

“All in all, we have initiated a number of activities to empower our next generation to build a peaceful and prosperous society”, Elias proudly concludes.

A key factor in this endeavor is a continuous interfaith dialogue on peacebuilding, where cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect is enhanced. The ICCI is trying to establish itself as an interfaith organization and measures have been taken to deepen the relationship between different religions. One example is the annual conference about the Jewish-Arab relationship which is arranged in cooperation with other academic, formal, and civil society organizations.

Another example is an interreligious school project addressing Muslims, Christians and Druze, where visits to each religion’s holy sites are arranged in order to build respect and understanding.

Hussam Elias hopes to expand this project and to include Jewish schools in it.

“We are re-approaching reconciliation as an interreligious project and we are aiming at strengthening mutual respect and awareness of each religion’s uniqueness”, he explains.

At the ICCI headquarters in Nazareth, Elias runs the daily operation with the help of a financial officer and a secretary. He reports to an area committee with three volunteers each from the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican/Lutheran and Oriental Churches.

The main challenge, according to ICCI’s chairperson since last year, Farah Geraisy, is to attract enough funding to sustain and develop programs:

“As a legal entity we must have a balanced budget. The challenge is to convince potential donors that our needs are not taken care of by the state of Israel. We need to build a better awareness abroad against the perception that the state takes care of everything, just because Nazareth is part of Israel”, he says.

*Claus Grue is a communication consultant at the World Council of Churches