His 12-year-old daughter was shot by Israeli soldiers, and yet, George Saadeh, principal of a Christian school in Bethlehem, chose not to respond with hatred. “We found the strength to speak words of love and forgiveness.” Meet this brave teacher on a mission to shape a new generation of Palestinians, through that preventing Christians from leaving the country. “Living together with others will only work if there is mutual respect.”

The principal’s office. Usually something is very wrong when someone is called there. But not today. Today, George Saadeh, principal of Shepherd’s High School in Beith Sahour, Bethlehem, talks not about punishment but about love and forgiveness.

The school belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest church in the Palestinian Territories dating all the way back to the first Christians from the book of Acts. However, children of all religions (Christian and Muslim) are welcome at the school.

Number of Christians Declining

Among the Palestinians, Christians are a minority of less than 2 percent and are still declining. “The last three years, 30 families from the Bethlehem area left; they migrated and will never return. Because of the situation—the occupation of the West Bank—life is hard. Many Christians emigrate.”

He is worried about the future of Christianity in the Holy Land. “You know what happens all over the Middle East: In Syria and Iraq, Christians are heavily persecuted and many of them have been forced to leave. Also in Egypt, churches are being bombed and Christians attacked. If we Christians in Palestine want to live here, we will have to work on mutual respect. If we respond by getting fanatic, the other side will retaliate with becoming even more fanatic. That will only make problems worse.”

Christian Identity Present

Children of all religions are welcome at the school and they receive religious education separately. But throughout the whole school program the Christian identity is present, George says. “We try to make the Christian spirituality an integral part of our education program. I’m talking about: how do you behave? What defines your relations with others? Treat others with love. Be honest. Play fair in sports. Have respect for those who think differently than you.”

The life of Jesus Christ is a guiding principle for this, the principal stresses: “Our Lord Jesus Christ was the first teacher. He showed in his own lifestyle what he preached.”

Effects of the Conflict on Christians

Palestinian Christians like George are not only a small minority among their own people. On a slightly larger scale they also face the daily consequences of living on the West Bank, a disputed piece of land under Israeli military occupation. The harsh consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on civilians have caused many Christians to leave already. “While the big powers are fighting, the Christians are caught in the middle.”

George himself, after studying aerospace engineering in the US, had the opportunity to migrate. “I would have had more opportunities in America — a life without checkpoints, without the smell of tear gas — Yes, that would have been better for me and my family. But I stayed because this is my country; I want to keep hope and faith alive here.”

“My sweet daughter”

That faith was severely tested in 2003 when, during a Palestinian uprising called the Second Intifada, Israeli soldiers mistaking George and his family opened fire on their car, instantly killing his 12-year-old daughter Christine and leaving George, his wife and his other daughter wounded. “My sweet daughter. Only 12. In a matter of seconds her life was ended.”

Because of his own injuries, George was unable to visit Christine’s funeral. Tears fill his eyes when he remembers that period. “Life was dark for us. But believe me, within all the despair and the deep grief, we found Jesus. Somehow we found the power to speak words of love and forgiveness, to speak about the strength of Jesus Christ living within us. He is stronger than hatred and injustice.”

Israeli Friends

After a while, George even joined a network for Palestinian and Israeli families who lost children through the conflict. “We speak and we share about our bereavement. That has helped me. I have Israeli friends now.”

Since the loss of his daughter, George preaches a message of tolerance, peace, forgiveness and justice. Also abroad, when speaking to groups of Christians. “Many people don’t understand this, because a message like this doesn’t fit in their image of the conflict here. I tell them: don’t be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel; be pro-justice.”

For George, justice is an inalienable part of Christ’s message, as is it is for many Palestinian Christians. “What are Christian values when Christians don’t speak out against injustice? Jesus did that; he was even crucified for it.”

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Palestinian Territories Ranks no.36 in the WORLD WATCH LIST

In cooperation with local partners and churches, Open Doors supports the persecuted church in Palestinian Territories through:

  • Biblical training
  • Trauma counselling
  • Reconciliation project
  • Bible and Christian literature distribution
  • Socio-economic development

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