Ramla, an isolated Christian community that is open to the world | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Ramla, an isolated Christian community that is open to the world

It is one of the least touristy cities where one can find a school belonging to the Custody. Yet the city of Ramla is still rich in historical interest. Let’s try to learn more about this school.
During his unsuccessful attempt to conquer Palestine, March 2, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Ramla. He took over the Franciscan Hospice and placed his headquarters there. Today the monastery of St. Nicodemus and St. Joseph of Arimathea and the adjacent Terra Santa College are located on the city’s main street. Shderot Herzl Avenue, goes through a town founded by the seventh Umayyad Caliph, Suleiman, in the early eighth century.
Looking upward, the whiteness of the square tower and of the clock tower on St. Joseph of Arimathea’s Church make these places easy to identify. From the roof of the hospice, the Custody’s property is bordered to the north by olive and lemon trees. Between the apse and the old town of Ramla in the south, after the Via Maris, which used to connect Cairo to Damascus. Ramla, on the path between the port of Jaffa and Jerusalem, is therefore at the crossroads of these two axes that were once highly important. Just 20 kilometers from Jaffa and 40 kilometers from Jerusalem, it was a stop where many pilgrims would stop to find replenishment while on their journeys. This was what Ignatius Loyola did, and also more recently, what St. Mariam Baouardy did.
“The Franciscans have been in Ramla since 1296,” recalled Br. Abdel Masih Fahim, who is simultaneously, the superior of the convent, the parish priest and the principal of the school. “We are at the center of the country between two major cities. Initially—he continued—we trained young boys to welcome and guide the pilgrims. We would teach them mathematics and languages.” Today, the school is the only one of three Christian schools with a Christian majority in the city.

“Ramla is geographically isolated from other Arab towns and villages—explained the brother—and so the feeling of being a minority is exacerbated. This is why children use Hebrew more than they do Arabic, even more so than in Jaffa. To address this phenomenon of hebraization of the community, the school, although its official language is Arabic, offers certain courses in Hebrew. The parish has also adapted by transcribing some Arabic prayers into the Hebrew alphabet.

Despite this proximity to Israeli society, the drafting of Arab Christian Israelis is a controversial measure that falls within a fragile context. The issue of military service for Christians is only one issue among many others, the friar noted: “The school is neutral, but the position of many in Ramla, myself included, does not align with Gabriel Naddaf’s (Editor’s Note: Naddaf is an advocate of Christian drafting).” Israeli Arabs are descendants of 1948 Palestinians. This community is a victim of discrimination, especially with regards to employment, housing and education.
Small government grants have not lowered this school’s success rate, which most often reaches 100 percent. The schools of the Custody are in a power struggle with the Ministry. “For 5 years, the aid that we receive has only decreased—noted the brother. Our schools are far from being on an equal footing with Jewish schools. They receive only 65 ​​to 75 percent of the subsidies, whereas government schools receive up 100 percent or more.” The 43 non-governmental Christian schools in Israel educate citizens of the state. The law of compulsory and free primary education thus applies to them. “The law is supposed to apply to all citizens—said the friar—and we demand that we receive the same grants without discrimination.”

Br. Abdel Massih, in accordance with the will of the Custody of the Holy Land, wants to build two new facilities. The first will house the Cultural Center of the Holy Land, that will serve the school, students in need of tutoring, as well as extracurricular activities, and it will be open to the whole community. The second will accommodate more students who are having trouble with traditional schooling and who prefer hands-on training. “We want all students to stay here in Ramla, from the most gifted students to the ones with the most difficulties, said the friar. Vocational schools, almost nonexistent in Arab towns, will bring give students who are struggling the opportunity to learn a trade and acquire knowledge in a professional field.”
The school’s façade overlooks a large courtyard. On the soccer field, the boys pass the ball to each other. Far from the sidelines, Joseph Albina, vice principal, explained that many former students choose to work for the Terra Santa schools. “I, for example, studied at the Terra Santa School in Jaffa, and before me my father, Anton, was an Arabic teacher here, and much of the teaching staff includes Terra Santa graduates, both locals and non-locals.”
In front of the courtyard, the principal and vice principal are greeted by a student carrying his tablet under his arm. Much of the students are equipped with tablets, and some rooms are equipped with computers and with overhead projectors. “We must follow the times so as to ensure the best possible learning experience—said the friar—technology and the Internet are part of the routine and allow for fast and smart learning.”

Christmas time was almost coming to an end when we visited Ramla. Entering through the transept of St. Nicodemus’ Church, we crossed Azar Khader, a cook by trade, who is from Ramla. He is the one who designed the crèche and who took it down as well. Every year, he makes the crèche based on a different theme. “For Christmas 2014—he said—the crib was a life-size tent, that showed solidarity with the Syrian people. Each year, I do not know what I will do. I enter the church and it inspires me.” Upon leaving the church, Br. Fahim church was stopped by a young man who asked him to edit a document before printing it. In Egyptian dialect and in a whispering voice, he corrected the grammar mistakes and punctuation on a prayer that was written in Arabic for the occasion of the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, celebrated annually on February 11.

Christians from Ramla show their solidarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian refugees and the World Day of the Sick. In Ramla, as in Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth and Acre, Christians are a threefold minority, and their future depends on a solidarity that is both political and spiritual. They are making efforts to contribute to a fairer society by gaining the first tool of change for themselves: a quality education.

Text and photos: Nizar Halloun

General information:
- Name: Terra Santa College
- Location: Ramla
- Founded: 1342 and 1728.
- Principal: Fr. Abdel Masih Fahim, since 2007.
- Number of students: 346
- Number of classes: 4-12
- Religions represented: Christians and Muslims

- Latin
- Melkite
- Maronite
- Orthodox
- Copt
- Protestant

City of Ramla:
- Population: 65,000
- Mixed city: 80% Jews, 16% Muslim, and 4% Christian
 Acre: the caravanserai that became a school

Nazareth on the way to citizenship while respecting its own identity

Haifa: the Italian school of the Carmelites is now Franciscan

Terra Santa School in Jaffa: Arab students at the heart of Israeli society