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RAMLE, Israel – It was an unlikely display of protesters: nuns cloaked in white, a black-clad priest clutching a golden scepter and dozens of Arab schoolchildren picketing outside the hulking headquarters of Israel's Education Ministry. Their message, raised high on large banners: "Take your hands off our schools."
Private Christian schools are among Israel's highest ranked educational institutions, established by churches in the Holy Land hundreds of years ago — long before Israel was established. But school administrators are accusing Israel of slashing their funding as a pressure tactic to get them join the Israeli public school system — a move they say would interfere with the schools' Christian values and high academic achievements.
They are also complaining of discrimination, since as Israel moves to cut money to Christian schools it continues to fully fund large private school networks that cater to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
"Even if we are a minority, we have an ancient message," said Father Abdel Masih Fahim of the Franciscan Catholic order and principal of the Terra Santa School in the central town of Ramle. "We want to be treated equally, not only in education but also in every other aspect of life."
It is the latest sign of trouble for Christians in the Holy Land. In the birthplace of Christianity, Christians are a tiny minority, making up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories. There are about 150,000 Christian citizens of Israel and about 50,000 Christians spread out in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Although they have not experienced the violent persecution that has decimated Christian communities elsewhere in the region, the population has gradually shrunk over the decades as Christians have fled conflict or sought better opportunities abroad. Pope Francis has raised the plight of Christians across the Middle East as a cause for concern.
Under a longstanding arrangement, Christian schools and other private schools that manage their own affairs receive only partial government funding, with the remainder of their budgets covered by either donations or tuition. The government funds cover roughly three-quarters of private schools' standard costs, but it has been cutting back on other supplementary funding.
The protesting Christian schools say this public funding has been systematically cut in recent years to their elementary schools. To compensate, schools raised tuition fees — a burden for the Arab community whose average income is generally lower than the national average.
But last year, the Education Ministry also placed limits on how much tuition the schools could collect from parents. Administrators say private funding from donors in the U.S. and Europe has dropped as they have directed their assistance to trouble spots elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Christian schools say they held months of negotiations with the ministry to resolve the budget crisis, but ended the talks when Israel suggested the schools become public.
In a statement, the schools said joining the public school system would mean "the end of the Christian, value-based educational enterprise and even a critical blow to the Christian minority in the Holy Land."
Kamal Atileh, a spokesman for the ministry, said it is trying to strengthen public education in Israel, but says it is up to the private schools to decide whether or not to become public. Israel would "maintain the uniqueness" of each private school if it joined the public school system, he said.
The Christian schools' fight reflects a wider battle being waged by other private schools — which have the status of being "recognized but unofficial." According to the Education Ministry, there are a total of 277 elementary schools with this status. Christian administrators say their 47 church-run elementary schools are affected by the budget crisis.
These schools are all facing the same budget cuts that the Christian private schools are, said Amnon De Hartog, a lawyer representing one of 23 private schools — mostly Jewish religious schools — that are petitioning Israel's Supreme Court against the recent budget cuts.
They say the cuts are unfair because Israel fully funds two large ultra-Orthodox Jewish private school networks — preferential treatment enshrined into law years ago thanks to the great influence of ultra-Orthodox political parties.
Advocates for the Arab community in Israel say the situation of church-run schools is different from other private schools. Some 30,000 Arab students — about half of them Muslim and half of them Christian — study in about 50 church-run schools in the country. Many of the schools have operated for centuries.
"It's a major part of the Arabic education system," said Sawsan Zaher of Adalah, a legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel. "When you see they are not fully funded while religious ultra-Orthodox schools are fully funded, of course you have discrimination, even if you have the law that enables that."