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Church-run schools in Israel face "death sentence"

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It suggested that they "join the public education system, which would mean a budget allocation of 100 percent while preserving the schools' special characteristics."

Mansour, however, said the schools' academic achievements and special character, including its Christian ethos, would be impossible to maintain if they came under government control.

Appeal to Pope Francis

Some rights groups vowed to take action. Adalah, a legal centre for the Palestinian minority, said it was preparing to challenge funding cuts in the courts. The policy, said Adalah lawyer Sawsan Zaher, contravened the 1961 UN convention against discrimination in education, which Israel has signed, as the government was fully funding independent Jewish schools.

Israel also had an obligation under international law to recognize the protected status of schools that existed before Israel's creation and served a "homeland minority," said Zaher.

Abdelmasih said that if the education ministry refused to reconsider its cuts, Christian leaders in Israel would appeal to Pope Francis to exert pressure on Israel.

The threat to the church schools comes as Israel's small community of Christian Palestinians -- about two percent of Israel's population -- says it feels increasingly under attack after a string of hate crimes against Christian and Muslim sites were committed by Jewish groups closely associated with settlements.

Other Palestinian Christians complain of feeling pressured by the government to serve in the army, worrying that military service would put them on a collision course with Israel's Muslim population.

Mansour said such pressures have led many Palestinian Christians to consider emigrating. "Our schools are important in keeping the connection between Christians and this land. We tell our pupils about their Palestinian Arab identity and heritage -- that this is their country."

Jabareen, the Arab Knesset member, submitted a bill this month that would require the education ministry to promote educational and cultural values suitable for the Palestinian minority.

"At the moment, the education system strongly advances Zionist values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and Jewish culture and heritage," he said.

"It entirely ignores the identity and culture of 20 percent of the population, and that has to change," he added.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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