Paris — Sr. Colette Hamza, a Sister of St. Francis Xavier, lives close to Marseille, France's second-largest city, on the Mediterranean Sea, where a quarter of the population is Muslim.
Hamza, a trained history teacher, is now a professor of Islamic studies at the Institut Catholique de la Méditerranée (Catholic Institute of the Mediterranean) and was, until recently, in charge of Christian-Muslim relations for the Archdiocese of Marseille. Once a week, she goes to a Catholic elementary school in Marseille's rundown northern neighborhoods to talk about religion.
She told GSR how important it is for children to learn about different faiths.
GSR: Your father was Algerian and Muslim; your mother, French and Catholic. Did this give you a special understanding for both communities?
Hamza: I was brought up Catholic in Marseille in a bourgeois neighborhood. I like to say that I have always tried to make Colette, my Christian name, dialogue with Hamza, my family's Arabic name, and I certainly felt I had to build bridges between the two communities. My order, the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier, sends us to create links with those who are the furthest away from the church. I spent most of my life as a teacher in the south of France.
Why do Muslim families send their children to a Catholic school?
Muslim parents tell us they choose a Catholic school because they know their children will be better looked after and educated than in the local public one and because they will be told about God.
The school where I teach religion to children, Notre Dame Saint Théodore, is both a preschool and an elementary school. Children are welcome at age 3, get into our elementary school at 6 and leave for high school at 10.
The building is located in the heart of some very difficult neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, where unemployment is very high and families struggle to make a living. Because of large subsidies from the state, fees are very low and families can afford to send their children.