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RAMLE, Israel – The Israeli school year has begun, but thousands of children from the Arab minority who attend Christian schools are still on summer vacation because of a strike to protest cuts in government funding that critics say amount to discrimination.
Administrators of the Christian schools, which mainly cater to Christian and Muslim Arabs, accuse Israel of pressuring them to join the public school system -- a move they say would compromise the schools' Christian values and undermine their high academic achievements.
In the central Israeli city of Ramle, the three Khoury siblings are killing time while their parents wait anxiously as the talks between the Education Ministry and the administrators continue. Some 33,000 students in 47 Christian schools have been on strike since the school year began on Sept. 1.
"I wake up every day late, I watch TV, I play, there isn't much to do," said 13-year-old Bashar.
"I miss my friends and I miss my teachers... I miss going back to school," said 10-year-old Loucin, who was supposed to be in 4th grade this year.
Under a longstanding arrangement, Christian and other private schools that manage their own affairs receive 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 the state has been cutting back on other supplementary funding.
Critics say the funding cuts amount to discrimination against Israel's Arab minority, which makes up some 20 percent of the population, noting that the government fully funds two large ultra-Orthodox Jewish private school networks. Administrators say the cuts have forced them to raise tuition for students from low-income communities.
"Racism comes from the state and not from the people in the street. The state is discriminating between the minorities and its (Jewish) people, and this is clear, there isn't any other explanation," said Khader Khoury, the children's father.
"Our wish is that, after 21 days of children getting bored at home, not studying, and learning to be lazy, and getting depressed, our wish is that they go back to school. Still we won't stop and we will continue with the strike until we get our rights," he said.
In addition to the strike, community members have also staged demonstrations. Earlier this month about 2,500 people protested outside the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
The Education Ministry said it has held high-level meetings with representatives from the Christian community to try to reach an agreement and bring an end to the strike. It said the representatives "consistently" rejected offers it presented.
Wadie Abu Nasser, an adviser to the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, said negotiations are "not easy" but didn't want to elaborate so as not to compromise the outcome. He said the talks are being conducted in a "positive atmosphere" and hopes they will result in a "just and dignified solution."
In the birthplace of Christianity, Christians are currently 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 in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
They have not experienced the violent persecution that has decimated Christian communities elsewhere in the region. But the Holy Land's Christians, who mainly identify as Palestinians, say they experience discrimination in areas like housing and employment, and over the decades have sought better opportunities abroad.