Israeli authorities cut funding whilst recognising the excellence of Christian schools
Fr Abdel-Massih Fahim said that the Israeli government has not yet transferred the funds pledged last year. On the one hand, the Education Ministry praises Christian schools as some of the best in the country; on the other, it constrains their activities. Students are enthusiastic about going back to school. Multiculturalism and religious pluralism are stronger that any obstacles. “We are actors, not mere spectators.”
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Students and teachers have started the new school year "with enthusiasm and participation" even though problems have remained "unresolved" for more than year and affect the lives of Christian schools in Israel, Fr Abdel-Massih Fahim, director of Christian Schools of the Holy Land Custody, told AsiaNews.
"The financial situation is still up in the air and getting worse,” the Franciscan priest said. “The Ministry has not yet allocated the funds promised in 2015. Still, we want to continue our mission, so we have started school."
Despite old problems, and educational and social challenges, about 33,000 students have gone back to Christian schools. The first bell rang in all 47 institutions, and at least for this year, classes started on time.
Yet, the dispute remains. Last year, Church leaders in the Holy Land postpones by a month the start of the school year in September 2015.
During the 28-day strike, pupils and teachers slammed Israeli discrimination against Christian schools in funding and school fees ceiling. The standoff ended with the government pledging 50 million shekels (US$ 13.3 million) by 31 March 2016. However, the money has not yet been transferred.
Church leaders in the Holy Land and European bishops have been involved in the battle against funding cuts. The issue was discussed last year when Pope Francis and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin met for the first time at the Vatican.
"We have negotiated with the Ministry of Education and the Department of Social Equality,” Fr Abdel-Massih Fahim noted, “but the matter is still pending. In recent days, they asked us to fill out a form, to be sent by September 20 to receive a portion (25 per cent of) of the funding. We have already taken steps to do this. Now we are waiting to see what happens."
Christian schools have 400 years of history and Church leaders want to keep them open. "We had moments of crisis in the past and we are convinced that we can overcome this,” the priest explained.
“We want to continue, in spite of the financial crisis, so much so that last year we gave a further discount of 25 per cent to the families."
Ahead of the new year, each school found a way the get the necessary funding but "it is a temporary solution."
"We do not want alms from the government but respect for our rights,” Fr Fahim said. “Ministry officials have proposed 34% funding but that is not enough. Plus, the law says that the government should foot ‘at least’ 75% of the costs. The goal is strip us of our autonomy, but we will continue to defend it to the hilt."
The mission of Christian schools is "clear: equal education for all, in a context of dialogue, discussion and exchange between students and teachers. The economic problems with the Israeli authorities do not and should not affect this. Multiculturalism and religious pluralism are the basis of our reality.”
The same Education Ministry that has failed to fund Christian schools also acknowledges that they provide an excellent education.
“Our schools are among the best in the country, not only nationally but also internationally,” the head of Christian schools said. “The high demand to register is evidence of this. Of course, we feel bad to say no to some families, but this shows the good work done by our schools."
The new year comes full of challenges, not only economic. "The role of schools,” Father Fahim said, “is to raise awareness among students helping them keep up with research and rapid change, especially about Middle East. We are actors, not mere spectators. We participate in our students’ development by teaching them moral values."
Some 33,000 pupils – 60 per cent of them Christian and 40 per cent Muslim with a few Jews – attend Christian schools. The staff numbers around 3,000, including Muslims and Jews.
Discrimination is blatant when compared to Ultra-Orthodox schools, which are funded only by the state and are not subject to Education Ministry inspections of their curriculum.