By Al Monitor
The Iraqi Ministry of Education issued a permit Nov.
4 for the establishment of a private, mixed Christian school, which
will teach Christians, Muslims and students from other communities.
After spending a year and a half working on the official procedures, the
school will officially open next year as the first interfaith school in
Iraq since the 1970s.
Archbishop Habib Jajou, the
Chaldean archbishop of Basra and southern Iraq, told Al-Monitor about
the project. “We have successfully experimented with Christian nurseries
and kindergartens," he said, "and now we want to open a primary school
as an expansion to offer successful education to both Muslim and
Christian citizens, especially after we saw how many Muslim families
want to register their children in Christian educational institutions.
Over the past 20 years, thousands of Muslim children have been admitted
into Christian kindergartens.”
Middle-class families want to send their children to schools that
offer a better education and a high level of security control, which
makes parents feel more comfortable in light of the increased rate of kidnappings in the city.
The reputation of Christian instructors who teach foreign languages
is another factor that has made Christian schools popular. Basra
residents still remember quite well the great role Christian schools
played in the city’s history, such as the American Rajaa School for Higher Education,
which John Van Aiss opened in 1912. This school was attended by the
children of powerful families at the time, and the majority of Basra’s
elites graduated from it, namely Yusuf Salman Yusuf (known also by his
nom de guerre Fahd), the founder of the Iraqi Communist Party.
The quest to open the Christian school in Basra is not only about
meeting the demands of Muslims and Christians alike, but it is also
about the harassment Christian students suffer in government-run
On Nov. 15, Jajou wrote on the Basra and the South Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese Facebook page a post titled Muslims and Christianity, in which he tackled the importance of Basra’s Muslims getting to know Christian beliefs better in order to put an end to violations
stemming from ignorance of the Christian religion. The post was
published after a Christian girl was severely scratched during a fight
with Muslim students, for being the only Christian in a Muslim-dominated
school, in which students know nothing about the Christian religion.
Jajou said, “This experiment is a test to strengthen national
identity, the spirit of citizenship and coexistence, by mixing students
from diverse religious backgrounds, such as Muslims, Christians and
Mandaeans,” in addition to providing an educational body that reflects
the diversity of the social fabric of Basra.
“The school hired a Mandaean teacher, a Muslim teacher and an
Armenian teacher, in addition to Chaldean teachers, because we believe
we are one family and successful coexistence stems from learning from
diversity,” he added.
In terms of language teaching, the new school will focus on the
Assyrian language, which was spoken by Christ over 2,000 years ago and
will be compulsory for Christians and optional for Muslims. This could
provide a unique opportunity to revive a strong cultural heritage,
especially after the school received requests from university professors
in Basra to learn this language from Assyrian-language teachers.
Salah Aziz Yusuf, an expert in the Assyrian language, told
Al-Monitor, “Teaching the Assyrian language is important for all Iraqis
as it is part of Iraq's cultural heritage, but unfortunately we do not
have qualified instructors to teach it.”
This is why Yusuf might have to teach the language himself, although
he only had administrative responsibilities as the coordinator of the
Assyrian-language department at the Directorate of Education of Basra
Christian schools in Baghdad also aim to achieve a similar experience
in terms of providing better education and achieving coexistence, while
overcoming the negative aspect of receiving education in government
In this context, Father Younan Alfred, the director of Al-Farah
primary school for the Orthodox in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor about his
joint teaching staff of Christian and Muslim teachers who teach 346
students, 33% of whom are Christian, while the majority, 65%, is Muslim,
in addition to some Yazidi students.
He explained the methodology of his school’s approach that focuses on
teaching Arabic, English and French, as well as Assyrian, which is
usually restricted to Christians. “The teachers devote time every
morning to stress the values of citizenship and encourage coexistence
and tolerance to the students,” he said.
In the past, Muslim families had the option to learn about the
Christian religion, but this idea was later rejected for fear of being
accused of carrying out missionary activities.
Alfred said, “Although Christian-Muslim coexistence inside the school
was a success, to achieve full harmony and more effective coexistence,
people need to learn about other religions. While Christian and Muslim students share the same classes and activities, they are separated in the religion courses.”
Alfred added, “We try to keep them together but religion ends up
separating them.” So eliminating religion courses from schools could be
the solution to stop separating students and finally be able to achieve
full harmony among them.
Alfred, who shares Jajou’s viewpoint, concluded, “The Iraqi Ministry
of Education should develop a curriculum to teach the history of Iraq
and strengthen the sense of national identity and lose sectarian and religious affiliations.”