Father Youssef Nasr is President of the Secretariat for Catholic schools in Lebanon. He recently spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the challenges facing the schools as the country’s severe economic crisis, which led to massive inflation and devaluation of the Lebanese pound, persists.
How many Catholic schools are there in Lebanon? And what is the proportion of Muslim vs Christian students?
We have three types of catholic schools: 211 Catholic academic schools that rely on tuition; 90 semi-free schools that until 2017 were backed partly by the state in the form of an annual stipend – these schools are the most threatened – and 19 technical schools.
There are approximately 200,000 students; 27 percent are Muslim, and 73 percent are Christian. Our aim is to preserve the presence of Christians in Lebanon. This is a particular challenge for Christian schools in regions that are mostly Muslim and where there is only a small percentage of Christians. We care about these students and help them, just as we support Christians in regions where they form the majority. Moreover, we maintain our identity even as we are open to welcoming all communities.
What is the role of the schools in fostering interfaith harmony?
Private schools in Lebanon are mostly dependent on religious institutions. In this context, Catholic schools play the role of coordination and gathering, meaning Catholic schools spread awareness among students of different religions, bringing them together. However, we treat everyone in the same way with regard to spreading the message of the Catholic Church.
Of course, we foster harmony and insist on openness.
We are trying to cooperate with Muslim schools in order to exchange experiences and establish openness between institutions, to promote harmony between the Christian and Muslim schools, all to form a society that is open to all religions in Lebanon.
What is the role of the schools in transmitting the faith?
The Catholic school is the right hand of the Church and embodies its mission. This is clear and manifest: we have our identity, mission and vision. The atmosphere in our schools is imbued with Christian values. We are committed to the Church’s mission, and we witness our faith towards students, staff and parents.
Why is access to quality education so important in giving parents hope and a reason to stay in Lebanon rather than emigrate to escape the economic crisis?
Parents want to look ahead for the best possible future despite the current challenges. They are asking for quality education for their children, and this is what we offer. That is why we need to maintain this education to keep people in Lebanon and prevent them from emigrating, especially given today’s difficult situation.
We must give a positive message to parents, showing that we are doing our best to maintain our education system. This is what we are working on.
Is the Christian aspect of the education well received by Muslim families?
Muslim families educate their children in Christian schools of their own free will.
We perform our mission not only with the Christian student, but also with the Muslim student. We profess that the profile of students who graduate from our schools is built on openness and recognition of others, as a result of the influence of Christian education.
What are the schools’ biggest needs and challenges?
First, the teachers’ salaries have been rendered largely worthless since the national currency began to collapse, so we are working to protect and keep them by trying to give them a small amount of money in US dollars each month. This is our goal, and we hope we can achieve it through the aid we receive. The second need concerns our school expenses such as electricity and heating, which account for 40 percent of all our expenses. And while all these are paid in US dollars, tuition is still mostly paid in Lebanese pounds which have lost most of their value and become close to worthless. We cannot go on without the aid that is given to us – we desperately need it.
ACN helps parents pay tuition and subsidizes teacher’s salaries in 200 schools. What is the impact of this assistance?
Without ACN we could never continue and manage all our expenses. We need your help, which is very important to us, to overcome challenges.
What is your message to ACN benefactors?
I would like to thank every donor, and say that it is very difficult – perhaps impossible – to go on without you.We are counting on your help in our Christian mission, without which we would jeopardize our existence. You are carrying out an evangelical and crucial mission.