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Dispute with Israel govt keeps Palestinian Christian schools shut

Sept. 1, 2015 4:27 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 2, 2015 10:04 A.M.)
The strike action affects around 33,000 pupils, mostly Muslims, at 47 schools run primarily by the Roman Catholic church. (AFP/Gali Tibbon/File)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Palestinian Christian schools in Israel stayed shut Tuesday, delaying the start of the new academic year, in a funding dispute with authorities in Israel.

The strike action affects around 33,000 pupils, mostly Muslim Palestinians, at 47 schools run primarily by the Roman Catholic church.

"All the schools are closed after a call for an open-ended strike," said the spokesman for Christian schools in Israel, Botrus Mansour.

Palestinian Christian schools and Israeli authorities have been in tough talks over state funding for them and their 3,000 employees.

"For a year and a half, we have been holding talks with the Israeli authorities and several figures have intervened, even the Vatican," said Mansour.

"A week ago, President Reuven Rivlin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett made very positive comments ... But we still haven't seen any serious proposal.

"We've tried everything and have no option left but to go on strike," he said.

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, sharply increasing the amount parents had to come up with.

Current state financing covers only "29 percent of the overall cost of a primary school," the schools said in a statement.

"It is a matter of equality," according to Father Abdelmassih Fahim, director of schools for the Catholic church's Custody of the Holy Land.

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

The student population at the schools is 60 percent Palestinian Christian and 40 percent Palestinian Muslim. The schools have a history predating Israel's foundation in 1948 and are run primarily by the Roman Catholic Church.

According to Israeli official figures, 160,000 Palestinian Christians live in Israel and 14,000 in occupied East Jerusalem.

The talks are taking place at a time when Palestinian 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-Palestinian 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."

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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