Middle East: Fewer Catholic schools spell more extremism

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 $2.8M aid program includes grants for more than 16,000 predominantly Christian pupils from poor households 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. The program also finances more than 20 solar panel projects for some of these schools.

The survival of schools in both countries is dependent on international financial support. “Our schools are in a terrible bind,” says Marielle Boutros, who is partly 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. And then there are operational costs. But 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 the gap. The children would then be ideologically indoctrinated, which would lead to more extremism.”

Students in Lebanon

Help serves a social purpose

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

ACN’s aid package does not only support parents with school fees and expenses, but also subsidizes salaries for teachers in Catholic schools and religion teachers in state schools. Without this financial support, many would not be able to make ends meet.  

For Yolla Bader, who has taught religion in a state school near Beirut for 23 years, ACN’s financial help is a great blessing: “This year, I had an accident and had to have an operation on my shoulder. Without the subsidy from ACN, I wouldn’t have been able to afford my operation.” For Bader, teaching is more than just a career. Despite the difficult situation, Yolla would not have stopped working. “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 other renovations in the schools ultimately serves a significant social purpose. “Solar panel systems are very important, because they help the schools become self-sufficient,” says 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. 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.”

Giving children perspective in war-torn Syria

In Syria, which has suffered from civil war since 2011, 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, a representative of the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate, which runs the Al-Riaya school in a suburb of Damascus.

The Christian population in Syria has dropped dramatically. Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, but before the war, roughly 1.5 million Christians were thought to live in the country, and according to current estimates, there are now around 200,000 Christian families. This makes financial support for Catholic schools even more significant, to give the children perspective despite the war and to help them build a deeper relationship to their homeland. “ACN’s support enables us, despite all the obstacles, to pursue our educational, human, and Christian tasks,” says Nseir. “We are doing everything we can to fulfill 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.”

—Sina Hartert