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St George School and the Anglican Church in Jerusalem

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 31.05.2006:

By Julius Purcell

Tania Kramer

Only a few rays of sun enter the dim, deserted and refreshingly cool school hall on this hot June day. Our footsteps echo as we walk through the one-hundred-year-old St. George’s School, which celebrates its centennial this month. On the ceiling are the lists of names from the football and cricket teams of the past. They contain the offspring of well-known Palestinian families who have passed their school time here over the past decades: the Husseinis, the Tannous, and the Hafifis.

A hundred years ago, in 1899, the St. George’s school, which is adjacent to the St. George Anglican Cathedral on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem, was founded by the Anglican Bishop Blythe.

Originally, the Anglicans had their eye on converting the local Jews in the Holy Land to Christianity and the local Arab Christians away from Eastern orthodoxy, which was seen by the enlightened Protestants as superstitious and backward.

The Anglican story with the Arabs was initiated by Bishop Blythe’s building of the St. George’s Cathedral in 1898 on open land on the Nablus Road, the northern route out of Jerusalem. Blythe was an inclusionist, working with the local orthodox Patriarchates, and setting up ecumenical links with Jewish leaders. St George’s was built to reflect what Blythe saw as the spirit of Anglicanism: its quad and gatehouse to reflect the broad humanism of a college, and its perpendicular style to imply that Anglicanism was Catholic in its history and scope. Established on the model of a British boarding school, St George’s School was intended to educate local Christian pupils, offering them an education that would enable them to follow a career in the service of the British Mandate of Palestine.

Christian, Moslems and Jews

In the first years, before the War of 1948 would start to disturb the functioning and the harmony of the school, the pupils included more than 23 nationalities, from all denominations – Christians, Jews and Muslims – learning side by side together for nearly three decades. On the school walls are lists of the names of football teams, with Jewish and Arab names intermingling.

The war-torn year of 1948 brought the era of common Jewish-Arab education to an abrupt and lasting end. While many Arab families became refugees and left for neighboring Jordan, Lebanon or other cities, and with most of them not coming back, Jewish families ceased sending their sons to school. As St. George’s was on the Jordanian side of the newly truncated Jerusalem, the Jewish faculty from the school was also forced to leave. The only Jewish relic from the pre-1948 era in evidence today is the fact that the Hebrew language is still taught at the school.

Within the local Anglican Church, the Arab voice was consolidated in the decades that followed. In 1952, Najib Kubain was ordained as the first Palestinian bishop, assuring the emancipation of the local Christian Arabs in the Anglican Church. In 1967 Jerusalem was divided in the convulsions of a new Arab-Israeli war. War once again left its mark upon the composition of the school population.

Now in his seventies, Wadia Khader has been a teacher at St. George’s since 1950. “Before 1967, we had students from Saudi Arabia, from Lybia and from Amman. The educational standard was very good, and the school was one of the best. But after the Six-Day War, everything changed and the standards dropped. The foreign students stopped coming.” Khader talks of the large-scale emigration of the wider Palestinian Christian population since the War of 1967, the majority of whom headed for Europe or the United States for a life unshaken by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Yet St. George’s School is traditionally considered a powerhouse among the other private schools like the Freres School, Schmidt’s College, Terra Sancta or the Rosary Sisters School. As the advent of the PLO in the late 1960s ushered in a new era of resistance to Israel, intellectual resistance was led by many raised in the Anglican tradition. Edward Said, the foremost Palestinian intellectual, is an Anglican. So were the revolutionary and poet Kamal Nasir, killed by Israeli agents, and the activist Elias Khoury. One of the PNA’s few women ministers Hanan Ashrawi, the writer Raja Shehadeh, the journalist Daoud Kuttab and Sari Nusseibeh, now president of Al-Quds University are all Anglicans, like Naim Ateek, the founder of Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology movement.


With the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, the school faced another major challenge. As current headmaster Samir Seqali remarks, the school is still trying to deal with the chaos and long-lasting consequences of that time.

“Most of the schools were closed, and the students missed out on their education due to the closure,” he explains. “The steady exposure to violence, which frequently occurred on the school grounds when the Israeli army would enter the school, left its mark on many of the students. The staff is trying to bring school life back to normal. It isn’t always easy,” he says. “Many Palestinian families suffer from economic difficulties, and enrolling their children in private schools is not easy.

“The political situation still interferes in school matters. The frequent imposition of closures by Israel prevents almost half of the teachers on the staff – most of whom live in the Bethlehem area and other towns in the West Bank – from attending school during these periods. Under the threat of heavy fines or arrest, they must take the risk of going via the back-roads to the school, where they are picked up by a school bus at dawn.”

At the present time, more than 500 students attend the school. Muslims currently comprise about 92 percent of the school population and Christians the other eight percent. “If the school has lost its former international and multi-confessional character, the important thing is to hang on to the spirit of the school,” explains a smiling Seqali.

A new theology

What exactly is this spirit? One answer comes from Naim Ateek, a canon of St. George’s Cathedral and the person who created Palestinian Liberation Theology in the late 1980s. His theology emerged from the experiences of the Intifada, and theologians in the West were quick to embrace it as a beacon of moderation and coherence.

What was striking about the new theology was that it came out of the Anglican Church – this tiny community, dwarfed by the other Arab churches, and diminishing in size. But its role has always been seen as special. Arab historian Albert Hourani has often commented how Anglicanism enabled Christian Arabs to break ties with a rigid social background. For Albert Aghazarian, the PR director at Birzeit University and a historian with a wealth of knowledge concerning Jerusalem’s church communities, progressive thinking and a sense of national direction were always fostered in the Anglican community: “Anglicanism always touched more on advanced trends than the orthodox churches,” he says. “This played a dominant role in Arab nationalism, and later, in Palestinian nationalism.”

Ateek, who with his family was evicted by the Israelis from the South Galilee town of Beisan (Bet Shean), was trained in San Francisco, and was until recently the Pastor of the Arabic-speaking congregation at St. George’s.

His theology asserted that the Palestinian Christian’s problem was the Old Testament emphasis on Biblical Israel’s might – and Jerusalem in the Intifada 1980s was a very problematic place for an Arab to deal with the God of Israel smiting her enemies. The core of Ateek’s thinking was ‘contextualization’, the need to apply Old Testament passages, and all walks of life, to the life and model of Jesus.

The new theology is tough on definitions. It argues that the notion of peace is meaningless without reconciliation through justice. Palestinians, Ateek argued, accepted Israel’s existence. In turn, Israel should give her Arab subjects full civil rights, and the Palestinians should be given a state.

The movement, in time known as Sabeel, played a huge part in articulating to a wide audience the Palestinian voice in the Intifada. Yet, to what extent was this due to Anglicanism as a shaping intellectual force for the Palestinians?

Ateek is quick to point out that Sabeel is not of itself an Anglican movement, “although, if you are talking of an ethos, Anglicans are trained to think as liberals, it is true. We are not really bound to think in a given way. We try to use our reason.” Ateek argues that, for him, Anglicanism is about, “public policy, involvement in the community. God comes into the whole context. Yes, maybe, innately, that is reflected in Sabeel.”

The Jerusalem Times

17 July 1998

25 June 1999

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