In 1342, the Catholic Church entrusted the Franciscans with the care of the Holy Places. The friars quickly understood that these would have little importance without the "living stones" that are the Christians. Thus, together with the Sanctuaries, parishes and schools arose.
For this reason, during the first half of the sixteenth century, maybe around 1518, the Franciscans opened the first schools in the Holy Land, first in Bethlehem and afterwards in Jerusalem; in the following century, another one was opened in Nazareth.
In these very modest schools, known as parish schools, in addition to primary education for children and the first lessons in religion, languages were taught, especially Italian and French, and afterwards Turkish and English, in addition to Arabic.
Foreign language teaching was not based on colonialist criteria, but had an eminently social character. During the Ottoman domination, non-Turks, and especially Christians, were excluded from high State positions and other occupations, could not own property and were obliged to pay very high taxes.
For Christians, the study of foreign languages was fundamental in order to work as interpreters or as pilgrim guides. Thus, a group of qualified Christians was formed, making their survival possible in such harsh circumstances.
It was not an easy time for schools, since political events and the Franciscan’s economical poverty rendered any project difficult. Instruction was free and the friars fed the children at lunchtime.
In this social context, it is important to highlight the creation in Jerusalem, in 1740, of an "Arts and Trades" school, so that Christians could make a living and subsist with a dignified job.
The largest group within the small Christian Arabic community in the Holy Land was the Greek Orthodox.
Like the Catholics, they had many difficulties surviving in the Turkish Empire; sometimes they only had two options: convert to Islam or emigrate.
The Franciscans also worried about maintaining this Christian presence. And to this purpose, school was important. Hence, starting from the end of the seventeenth century, the friars´ schools also welcomed young Orthodox Christians.
This is additional evidence of the universalistic character of the Franciscans, as can be deduced from a decision made on February 20, 1809, by the Council of the Custody of the Holy Land: the presence of Greek Orthodox students would be allowed in Franciscan schools, even if they don’t embrace the Catholic faith.
Only two conditions would be required: the approval of their parents and respect for the school’s regulations. Today, it may seem like a completely normal decision, but it was not so two centuries ago.
It is important to consider that Greek Orthodox, who, according to ancient testimonies did not concern themselves with the education of local young Christians, opened their first school in Jerusalem only in 1842; and the same can be said of the Armenian Orthodox, whose school apparently already existed in 1846.
Artemio Vítores, ofm