Christians in Israel have threatened to shut down major sites of pilgrimage, including Jesus’ tomb, because of a dispute over government funding of Christian schools.
Gradual changes to the education budget means that Israel’s Christian schools now receive just one-third the public funding of Jewish schools. Claiming discrimination, the schools have been on strike since the school year began Sept. 1. (RELATED: Jewish Extremists Set Fire To Israeli Church)
Now, school officials say they are “seriously considering” coordinating a Christian shutdown of the holiest sites in Israel. That includes Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and empty tomb. It also includes the Basilica of the Annunciation, a church in Nazareth marking the spot where Christians believe Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would give birth to the Savior.
Israel’s Christian schools instruct some 33,000 students — and not just Christian children, but Jews and Muslims as well. Forty of the 47 schools are administered by the Catholic Church, but others belong to Orthodox and Protestant denominations. (RELATED: Why Israeli Politicians Are Backing Mandatory First-Grade Arabic)
Christian officials claim that the government once paid for 75 percent of their schools’ operating costs. Now, the overseers of Israel’s Catholic institutions say that number is only 29 percent.
In their negotiations with Israel’s Education Ministry, school officials have rejected several alternate proposals, including one that would charge higher tuition while maintaining the same level of public funding.
While they enjoy far more freedom to practice their faith than in many surrounding Middle Eastern countries, members of Israel’s small Christian minority often face social harassment and discrimination from the government.
It doesn’t help that most Christian citizens of Israel are Palestinian Arabs, and therefore automatically met with suspicion. People who call themselves “Israeli Arabs,” “Arab Israelis,” or “Palestinians living in Israel” are a growing percentage of the overall Israeli population, and have begun playing a significant role in recent elections. (RELATED: Are You Jewish? Israel’s Government Might Disagree)
Botros Mansour, the principal of a Baptist school in Nazareth, told Agence France-Presse that shuttering Christian pilgrimage sites would be “a painful step for Israel,” considering the millions of foreigners who visit the country’s holy places each year. “Pilgrims who come here and see the sites closed will ask why, and hear about Israel’s anti-Christian discrimination,” Mansour said.
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