Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Mgr Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, is moderately optimistic about the ongoing dispute involving Catholic schools in Israel.
"At the official level, the situation has not changed, because we have not been able to meet owing to the [Jewish New Year] holiday,” the prelate told AsiaNews. “However, we have had several contacts at a personal level, which could be useful in settling the dispute in the coming days."
For the prelate, “the media, including the Jewish media, have covered the issue,” and “prominent figures, including ministers and mayors, as well as various groups, have become interested in the case.”
Public interest over the issue “has surprised us because growing awareness of the situation has created a positive atmosphere around us."
Israel’s Christian schools have been on strike since the start of the month. Teachers and students complain that they are discriminated twice. On the one hand, the state funds only 29 per cent of costs. On the other, the authorities have limited how much families can contribute. In the end, Christian schools cannot meet their annual costs and might have to close.
The discrimination is even more blatant when Christian schools are compared to their Ultra-Orthodox counterpart. The latter are 100 per cent funded by the state and their curriculum is not subject to Education Ministry inspections.
Pope Francis and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin discussed the issue when they met for the first time at the Vatican.
Israeli authorities "are very disturbed by the fact that we are persevering in the strike," said Mgr Marcuzzo. "The more than 30,000 [striking] youths and children should be in school instead of home."
Last week, 450,000 Israeli Arab students struck in a show of support and solidarity for Christian schools. "These images hurt Israel and its people,” the prelate added.
The Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem does not hide his concern over the attempt to "suppress Christian schools, and turn them into public facilities." This would deprive them of "their identity".
In the context of the Middle East and the Holy Land in particular, this would undermine “the Christian presence". For him, "In the current historical and social context, the presence of the Church is absolutely essential and schools are a priority component of its mission”.
Israel’s Christian schools provide education to over 33,000 pupils, 60 per cent of whom are Christian and 40 per cent Muslim, with a few Jews. Teachers and support staff number around 3,000, including Muslims and Jews.
Until two years ago, Christian schools received 65 percent of their budgets from the state, but that was cut to 34 per cent and is now at 29 per cent, which is not enough to cover costs.
To understand the importance of Catholic schools, Mgr Marcuzzo cited some figures. "Christians are 2 per cent of the population but Catholic schools represent 4 per cent of the school system. Thirty per cent of students in universities come from our schools and 80 per cent of high-tech employees in Israel are our former students. That's why they [our schools] are the best in the country."
Depriving the Christian community of its schools means progressively depriving young people of their identity "through ignorance, emigration or integration in national structures, the first of which is the army."
"It is not only a question of school funding,” said the patriarchal vicar, “but also of rights, equality, justice, democracy, freedom and, ultimately, peace.”
“We are and shall remain a bridge between communities. Wherever Christians are present, coexistence between different faiths is possible. If there is a Christian community, Muslims, Druze and Jews also can live together. "
The prelate also said that for now at least, Christian places of worship would not close in protest. Instead, "I call on the faithful and on pilgrims from around the world to come to the Holy Land,” he said.
For now, “Churches and monasteries shall remain open.” Closing them “is not being considered yet. It was discussed, but nothing has been decided, at least at the official level.”
Needless to say, “For us it would be an estrema ratio, an action of last resort. We are counting on the good sense of the parties to avoid reaching this point." (DS)