Christian schools shut in Israel to protest budget cuts

© Ronen Zvulun
The beginning of a new academic year has been put off for nearly 50 Christian schools in Israel. Almost 33,000 pupils, mostly Palestinians, have had to stay at home due to a funding dispute with Jewish authorities.

47 schools, run by the Roman Catholic Church stayed closed on the first official day of the school year, Tuesday, in Israel and East Jerusalem, in protest against the Jewish state's new education funding policy, AFP reported.

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While the state covers all of the school costs of secular Jewish and religious ultra-Orthodox Judaic schools, “unofficial but recognized” Christian schools have seen a budget cut to a mere 29 percent “of the overall cost of a primary school." It follows a reduction from 65 percent of the funding, with the rest paid by parents, to 34 percent two years ago.

"All the schools are closed after a call for an open-ended strike," a spokesman for the Office of Christian schools in Israel, Botrus Mansour, told Middle East Online web portal. "We've tried everything and have no option left but to go on strike."

"For a year and a half, we have been holding talks with the Israeli authorities and several figures have intervened, even the Vatican. A week ago, President Reuven Rivlin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett made very positive comments... but we still haven't seen any serious proposal,” Mansour added.

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About 50 Christian schools in Israel are attended by some 33,000 pupils, roughly 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim, with approximately 3,000 teachers employed.

Many of the local Christian schools, governed by the Roman Catholic Church, have history going farther back than Israel’s foundation in 1948. Some of them rank among the country’s most academically successful.

"It is a matter of equality," Father Abdelmassih Fahim, director of schools for the Catholic Church's Custody of the Holy Land said. "A Jewish Israeli child has the right to 100 percent [of school costs covered by the state] and our schools don't, while our teaching is among the best in Israel."

He said that the schools still wait for the education ministry to reply to their demands, as they had been calling for a return of the 65 percent funding figure.

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Last week, President Reuven Rivlin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett had a meeting with church officials, and the president’s office said that he “welcomed the important work of these schools,” according to The Times of Israel newspaper.

According to a Monday statement by the Office of Christian schools in Israel, the meeting "failed because the proposed increase did not comply with the minimum demands of the schools and we found that their purpose was just to win time and stop all our protests."

About 160,000 Christians currently live in Israel, and their population in East Jerusalem is 14,000, according to official Israeli figures.