Brotherhood, coexistence, and acceptance: 800 years since the meeting between St. Francis and the Sultan

A cultural coexistence project between Christians and Muslims is the underway at the Terra Sancta College in Bethlehem for 470 students who are 14 to 18 years old.

Terra Sancta College is the first school founded in Bethlehem and undoubtedly one of the first schools in the region. Active since the 16th century, thanks to the Order of Franciscan Friars Minor, who began their educational activities in the city of Bethlehem with two objectives: teaching children the principles of Christianity and focusing on foreign languages, English and Italian in particular, offering young people the possibility of a different life. Today the school has about 1180 students enrolled, 62 percent of whom are Christians and just over 38 percent of whom are Muslims. These numbers reflect the social composition of the city of Bethlehem and are an example of the mission being carried out by the Franciscans who guarantee education without any discrimination.

“We are one. We are brothers and sisters,” said Prof. Linda Deklallah, who teaches English and Islam, “and this project helps us remember that. Terra Sancta College in Bethlehem represents the meeting between St. Francis and the Sultan on a daily basis: we do not feel different [from each other].” The project, which was started in January 2019, has several objectives: raising awareness of the importance of peace, coexistence and acceptance others; improving the idea of interactive training expressed in the workshops that the students have carried out, both among themselves and with their teachers; creating a certificate of brotherhood, coexistence, and acceptance to be shared  outside of the school so as to be an example within society. “I think this kind of project helps to bind our community together,” said Nader Madbouh, one of the students involved. “Especially at this time of hardship and particularly political and economic conditions. We have many reasons to emigrate but if we are aware of who we are we can continue to live in peace as we have always done.”

The different phases of the work led to the moment when the Brotherhood Certificate was issued on Wednesday, January 30, in the presence of the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, the Patriarch Emeritus, Mons. Micheal Sabbah, the Archbishop of Sebastia, Atallah Hanna, and the Mufti of Bethlehem, Abdelmagid Ata. In addition, there were representatives of the Palestinian Authority: the Minister of Tourism, Rula Maaya, the Minister for Islamic Religious Affairs, Yousef Dias, the representative for Christian Affairs, Hanna Issa, and the Mayor of Bethlehem, Tony Salman.

Br. Marwan Di'des, the Director of Terra Santa College who helped promote the initiative, explained that the project is based on the synthesis of the different stories of the meeting between St. Francis and the Sultan Al-Malek Al-Kamil, which can be found within the Franciscan Sources. The participants in the project also watched the film, “The Sultan and the Saint,” produced by UPF, the Unity Production Foundation, and it “was a real challenge,” said Fr. Marwan, “because the students are not used to watching documentaries, but watching it was important so as more deeply understand the topic.” During the initiative, there were also some challenging moments, such as when they watched the Lebanese film “Hala Lawain,” (“Now, where do we go?”) that speaks about religious fanaticism that leads to death. January 24th was dedicated to the workshops where the students produced a document supporting the need for coexistence. “Our aim was to make the youth understand that religious fanaticism leads only to death,” said Fr. Marwan. “In order to have peace, we need to be people who seek peace, and to be people who seek peace, we must be wise people. It is wisdom that leads to peace, not just brotherly love.”

St. Francis and the Sultan: from the example of these two figures who were able to dialogue in a moment of war, the youth wrote a statement composed of ten articles so that we can continue to build a society that is united and fraternal.

This agreement was made on the 800th anniversary of the encounter between St. Francis and the Sultan Ayyubid Al-Malek Al-Kamel in 1219.

"We believe that:

1. We, as human beings, are equal before God.
2. Education is the cornerstone to establishing peace.
3. Knowledge of others is fundamental to safeguarding our diversity and our brotherhood.
4. Knowledge and awareness of our surrounding environment despite its hardships gives us the ability to survive.
5. A true faith experience with God is the way to peace.
6. The monotheistic religions are a heavenly message of peace.
7. Building human relationships is the foundational principle of coexistence.
8. It is with open-mindedness
and accepting others that mutual respect prevails and fears disappear.
9. Initiatives based on wisdom are fundamental to establishing peace. 
10. Actions that bring about concrete results to people’s lives are reinforced."

Giovanni Malaspina