Students get ready for the school day at Jerusalem’s Greek Catholic Patriarchate School. The Toronto Arab Knights of Columbus council is raising funds to help put students through school. Photo courtesy of Hikmat Dandan

Arab Knights reach out to Holy Land

  • November 29, 2012

TORONTO - Toronto’s Arab Knights of Columbus are calling on Catholics to help support Christian students in Jerusalem today to ensure the future of Christianity in the Middle East for years to come.

Hikmat Dandan, Grand Knight of Toronto’s Jesus The King Arab Christian Council, began this project two years ago when Archbishop Joseph Jules Zerey of Jerusalem addressed members of Jesus The King Melkite Catholic Church.

The archbishop spoke “about the problems that Christians were facing in the Holy Land,” said Dandan. “And then he spoke about the school and how parents are not able to cope with the cost of the students.”

Dandan is referring to the Greek Catholic Patriarchate School in Beit Sahour founded in 1966. Beit Sahour, which means place of the night watch, was where the angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus.

“In a way, these students are the great grandchildren of the shepherds who greeted baby Jesus,” he said.
Dandan launched the Jerusalem Students project to help children who couldn’t afford to pay school fees.

“In general the economic situation there is very meagre and very bad. And parents are hardly able to cope with the expenses,” said Dandan. “Sahour is mainly a tourist area… Because of all these problems in the Middle East, it has affected the economic situation for the past couple years.”

Supporting the education of Christian students will strengthen the Christian presence in the Holy Land, said Dandan.

“When they are successful and they graduate and become university students and they have good businesses, the Christian presence will become stronger.”

On the other hand, Dandan says that if a student “is in dire need,” he will not succeed and his parents won’t have more children because of the challenge of raising just one.

“And the Christian presence will become more meagre.”

With the intention of advertising the project to Christians and Knights of Columbus members worldwide, Dandan took his idea to Zerey, who gave his blessing. Then 25 children in need of support were identified by school administrators.

“At that time I started promoting the project on a CD,” said Dandan, whose own children helped him create its content.

He promoted the project among parishioners and colleagues, and a fellow Knight sponsored a web site, which has been online for about six months. It keeps the students’ names anonymous, but includes details on their lives, detailing why they need support.

With about 600 students and 50 teachers, he said, “The school has an annual deficit of $125,000 (U.S.) … They are Christian students and the patriarchate cannot tell them you’re not paying, leave the school.”

One student costs the patriarchate $800, says Dandan, but he feels that amount is too much to ask for from one individual. So through, he lists the cost to sponsor one child as $500 for one year. Two sponsors can also share the financial cost of supporting one student. Sponsors can pay monthly or in one lump sum. And they will receive a profile of the student sponsored, including a photograph and a handwritten letter of thanks from the student.

Currently, nine students have been sponsored. Once all 25 have been sponsored, Dandan will request another list of 25.

“In our council, we also have an obligation to help Christians in the Middle East, where Jesus walked and preached in the Holy Land… In 50 years or a little bit more, there will be no more Christians there.”

Recalling the Pope’s visit to Lebanon last September, “His message was very clear. He asked the faithful all over the world to bolster and strengthen the Christians of the Middle East because they are passing through turbulent times,” said Dandan.

“My goal is — and I hope God helps me to do that — this web site becomes well known to faithful Christians all over the world. And not only to sponsor students in Beit Sahour, but to sponsor Christian students everywhere in the Holy Land and in the Middle East in general.”

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