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New school year in doubt at Palestinian Christian schools in Israel

Aug. 29, 2015 12:44 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 29, 2015 1:47 P.M.)
Roman Catholic clergymen hold candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 2, 2015 (AFP/Gali Tibbon, File)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel's academic year starts Tuesday, but if tough financing talks with the government bear no fruit, the doors of the country's 47 Christian schools will remain closed, a church official said.

Some 33,000 children, mostly Muslim Palestinians, attend the schools, which have a history predating Israel's foundation in 1948 and are run primarily by the Roman Catholic church.

Traditionally, the schools received 65 percent of their budgets from the state, with parents paying the balance. But that figure was cut to 34 percent two years ago, doubling the amount parents had to come up with.

Father Abdelmassih Fahim, director of schools for the Catholic church's Custody of the Holy Land, said the situation had become untenable and he is pressing for a return to the 65 percent funding figure.

"It is a matter of equality," he said.

"A Jewish Israeli child had the right to 100 percent (of school costs financed by the state) while our schools don't, while our teaching is among the best in Israel."

Fahim said the authorities are proposing that the Christian schools move from being "unofficially recognized" to "officially recognized," effectively meaning their buildings and staff would come under state control, and be subjected to Israeli state policies concerning the education of students.

"We categorically reject that," he said.

The office of President Reuven Rivlin has said he and Education Minister Naftali Bennett met with church officials this week, and that the "president welcomed the important work of these schools."

Fahim said "these declarations are positive, but we are now awaiting the minister's proposal."

"If we do not get satisfaction, we will be obliged to announce that the school year will not begin on Tuesday."

The talks are taking place at a time when Christians in Israel are under growing strains, with leaders of their communities saying they are afraid in the wake of attacks by Jewish extremists on churches and other properties.

Earlier this month, Benzi Gopstein, leader of anti-Arab group Lehava, allegedly called for the burning of churches at a panel held for Jewish yeshiva students, using ancient Halachic, or Jewish law, to condemn what he called Christian "idol worship."

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