Middle East: “Fewer Catholic schools means more extremism”

ACN approves 2.6 million euros for schools in Lebanon and Syria

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has approved a new aid package for schools in Lebanon and Syria for the 2023-2024 school year. The 2.6-million-euro aid programme includes school grants for more than 16,000 predominantly Christian pupils from poor backgrounds in 176 Catholic schools, as well as allowances to supplement the salaries of 6,000 teachers in Catholic schools and 117 religion teachers in public schools. This aid programme also includes the financing of more than 20 solar panel projects for the roofs of some of these schools.

Middle east catholic schools
Children of the Lebanese school run by the sisters of the Good Service in Lebanon

Both countries are essentially dependent on international financial support for the survival of schools: “Our schools are in a terrible bind,” says Marielle Boutros, who is co-responsible for the project work of ACN in Lebanon. “Parents can’t pay school fees anymore, and there is no state support. However, without income the schools can’t afford the teachers’ salaries. Then there are the operational costs. Yet, if we don’t keep Catholic schools going, the consequences will be serious for the whole country. Some Islamist institutions are waiting to jump into this gap. The children would then be ideologically indoctrinated, which would lead to more extremism.”

Help serves a social purpose

Since the economic collapse in Lebanon in 2019, more than 70% of the population lives in extreme poverty; because of the war, sanctions and inflation, the figure in Syria is 90%. Boutros explains that “a person in Lebanon who earned about 2,000 US dollars a month, now gets only the equivalent of about 20 to 30 dollars. Just the journey to work eats up the whole salary. Many people have lost their jobs. They live on a few dollars a month and have to skip meals.”

Middle east catholic schools
Marielle Boutros, ACN project coordinator in Lebanon

ACN’s aid package does not just support parents with school fees and expenses for school materials for their children, it also subsidises the salaries of teachers in Catholic schools and those of Catholic religion teachers in state schools. Without this financial support they would often not be able to make ends meet. A large aid package had already been provided last year. For Yolla Bader, who has been teaching Catholic religious education in a state school near Beirut for 23 years, the foundation’s financial help was a great blessing: “This year I had an accident and had to have an operation on my shoulder. Without the subsidy to my salary from ACN I wouldn’t have been able to afford any operation.” For her, teaching is more than just a career. Despite the difficult situation, Yolla would never have stopped working, she explains. “My task here is not simply to teach. My mission is to be the presence of Christ in this school, even when that is only a little light in the darkness.”

ACN’s support for the installation of solar power and renovation projects at the schools also ultimately serves a significant social purpose: “Solar panel systems are very important, because they help the schools become self-sufficient,” says Marielle Boutros. “Because there are strikes at many state schools, three million children run the risk of growing up without education. We can take many of them – including Muslim children – into Catholic schools. The Christians are fulfilling an important task here for the whole of Lebanon. Many Muslim parents value our work. The children get to know the faith and Christian values, and in being together, tolerance also grows.”

Middle east catholic schools
Children of the Lebanese school run by the sisters of the Good Service in Lebanon

Giving children a perspective in war-torn Syria

In Syria, which since 2011 has been suffering from a civil war that killed some 6,000 people in 2021 alone, poverty today is worse than ever. “Syria was nailed to the Cross. The country has survived, but the war has torn deep wounds in body and soul,” said Elias Nseir, representative of the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate, which runs the Al-Riaya school in a suburb of Damascus.

The proportion of Christians in Syria has dropped dramatically. Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, but whereas before the war roughly 1.5 million Christians were thought to live in the country, according to current estimates there are now around 200,000 Christian families. This makes financial support for Catholic schools all the more significant, to give the children a perspective in spite of the war and to help them build a deeper relationship with their homeland, which has been marked by suffering. “ACN’s support enables us, despite all the obstacles, to pursue our educational, human and Christian task”, says Elias Nseir. “We are doing everything we can to fulfil our mission and are deeply grateful to our donors. You were, and are, a colossal support! Thank you all, a thousand times over! We are counting on your valuable help.”

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