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The war tore the country apart, including its capital. Christians and their armed militias inhabited the city’s northern and eastern neighborhoods. Sunni and Shiite Muslims and their militias dominated the city’s western quarter. Separating east from west, Christian from Muslim, the barricaded Green Line — a dangerous no man’s land — ran through the city center.

Yet even during those explosive times, Lebanon’s Catholic schools continued to teach Christian and Muslim students, side by side.

“We are on the Christian side of the Green Line, and throughout the civil war we had Muslim students who crossed the Green Line,” said Mary Elizabeth Sanan about Antonine Fathers College, where she has taught English for more than 32 years. Perched on the slopes of Baabda, the school overlooks Beirut from the southeast.

“There was one mother who had two cars. She came in one car. She stopped it before the Green Line. She walked across with the children. She had another car on the other side and with it she came to school,” she continued.

While there were other schools in western Beirut — closer to home and within a safer commute — this particular woman preferred to risk crossing the buffer zone so her children could attend a Catholic school.

The war is over, but Lebanon’s Catholic educators continue to provide a well-rounded education to all, regardless of creed. Today, the country’s 365 Catholic schools instruct some 200,000 students — about 22 percent of Lebanon’s school-age population — from all of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious communities. Over 25 percent of the total student body is Muslim and, in many schools, Muslim students are the majority. Likewise, the approximately 12,800 teaching staff and 900 administrators employed by the Catholic school system represent every confession.

At Notre Dame College, a school of the Antonine Sisters in the southern village of Nabatieh, most students are Muslim.

“Our students in Nabatieh are as dear to us as our students in Ghazir,” said Sister Dominique. “Muhammad, Hassan, Ahmed, Tony, Joseph or George, it’s the same thing. We do not distinguish between them. We love them all.”

When instructing Christian students, she continued, teachers try to enrich their knowledge of their faith and “help them build their convictions as Christians.” But in places such as Nabatieh, where most of the students are Muslim, they teach morality and ethics, values people of all faiths share.

Catholic schools can be found throughout Lebanon, in areas where there is little religious diversity or towns where Christians and Muslims live in segregated areas. In such places, the boundaries separating public school districts frequently coincide with community boundaries — thus reinforcing sectarianism.

Catholic schools, meanwhile, enroll students from all communities, whether adjacent, distant, Christian or Muslim. In many parts of Lebanon, they represent the last forum where Christian and Muslim youth meet and grow up knowing one another.

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Tags: Lebanon Education Muslim Christian-Muslim relations Emigration