Christian schools’ officials reject Education Ministry offer to end strike

Some 33,000 pupils at 47 Christian schools around the country have not returned to school yet.

Classroom (illustrative). (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Classroom (illustrative).
Senior officials from the Secretariat of Christian Schools in Israel turned down an offer by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Education Ministry on Wednesday to resolve the crisis between the two sides over funding for Christian schools.
The Education Ministry said in a statement following a meeting between the two sides that it had offered to cancel the cuts to the schools’ budget from last year, but noted that the secretariat officials rejected this offer.
Some 33,000 pupils at 47 Christian schools around the country have not returned to school yet, despite the new academic year being almost two weeks old, due to what the secretariat has described as drastic and “discriminatory cuts” to their budgets.
Father Abdel Massih, the director-general of the Christian schools network, and other representatives met with the directors-general of the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday morning in order to try to achieve a solution to the crisis.
According to Massih, however, the Christian schools were offered only a 5 percent increase in funding over last year, while the government representatives stated that the schools would be allowed to increase the fees to be paid by parents, terms which he said were not acceptable.
Joint List MKs Ahmad Tibi (Ta’al) and Basel Ghattas (Balad) attended the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday regarding the school strike.
“There are still large gaps in the positions of the two sides,” Tibi said after the meeting.
In addition, he said that the schools did not get what they asked for and that this is bad news.
Tibi warned that the failure of the meeting would bring “an escalation of the public struggle in this matter.”
MK Yousef Jabareen (Hadash) told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that more protests are being planned.
On Tuesday, Jabareen sent a letter on the issue to all foreign embassies in Israel, requesting their support in “the ongoing struggle of these schools. The secretariat said it would also send letters to the State Comptroller’s Office, the Chief Rabbinate, and leading Israeli academics.
In recent years, he wrote, “these schools have been under attack. The Ministry of Education has started a systematic unilateral policy of budget-cuts, aimed at starving these schools of funds.”
He also claimed that the ministry had sent warning letters to several of these schools threatening to bar renewal of their licenses.
The Christian schools are categorized as recognized but unofficial, meaning they are entitled to 75% of the funding that state-run schools receive.
The Secretariat of Christian Schools claims, however, that the Education Ministry has consistently reduced the standard number of allocated teaching hours in the Christian sector from 1.1 hours per student in the 2003/2004 school year to 0.66 hours per student for the current year. Although the ministry is still paying for 75 percent of those hours, the reduction in allocated hours means that the total funding for Christian schools has declined to between 29% and 34%, according to the secretariat.
The secretariat alleges that recognized but unofficial schools in the haredi sector have not faced similar cuts to the allocated teaching hours, and claiming that the cuts to the Christian sector are therefore discriminatory.
“A few weeks ago we went to the streets to protest against vandalism and destruction of our holy sites, and a few days ago we took to the streets against these discriminatory cuts,” said Massih at a press conference held by the secretariat in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
“We don’t know where state is leading us with these kind of policies,” he said.
Protest tents will also be organized and erected outside the residence of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whom the secretariat says has the authority to increase the schools’ funding, as well as the offices of the Education Ministry in Haifa and Nazareth.
Butros Mansour, a member of the board of the secretariat said that the option of closing down Christian holy sites in Israel to foreign tourists is being considered, but no decision on such a step has yet been taken.
The closure, if implemented, would include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites for Christians.
Mansour said that the Christian clergy are not opposed to this move, although it could be a complicated step to take, and a possible closure would be reexamined at the beginning of next week.
It also noted that the secretariat had instructed secondary schools in its network to strike even though they are receiving 100% funding. Mansour said that this was because 42 of the 47 schools comprise both elementary and high school divisions, so the decision had been taken not to open the high schools while the primary schools were on strike.