By Doreen Abi Raad | Catholic News Service
BEIRUT (CNS) — In Lebanon, teetering on the abyss of a socioeconomic crisis, the future of Catholic schools is at risk.
Melkite Father Youssef Nasr, secretary-general of Lebanon’s Catholic schools, said the school year was opening amid “a major life and existential crisis that stifles the breath of the entire nation and threatens the future of education.”
“We have tried during the past year to confront this crisis with all our might” and “to prevent any school from closing its doors in these difficult circumstances,” Father Nasr said.
Father Nasr noted that donors, both local and international, played “an important role in keeping the doors of our schools open.”
Since the onset of Lebanon’s economic collapse in late 2019, the once-middle income country has now become a place where nearly 80% of the population is poor.
At a Sept. 6-7 meeting of bishops, heads of religious orders, school administrators, teachers, parents and government representatives, Father Nasr stressed that every Catholic school “is an urgent need that embodies the educational mission of the church,” as it keeps the faithful in their villages, provides education for students and job opportunities for teachers “and extends a helping hand to everyone in need.”
“The reality is still very bleak,” Father Nasr said. “The political situation is getting worse, and the economic crisis is getting more complicated, which puts us at a dangerous crossroads.”
“Our main concern is, what would be the impact of the demise of Catholic education in Lebanon on the youth, on the family, on the church and on the homeland?”
Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite Catholic Patriarch, told meeting participants a Catholic school is distinguished by “its commitment to the mission of the church” and “its openness to everyone, without discrimination.”
“The life of communion gives the Catholic school the face of a synod, which means walking together and mutual listening,” Cardinal Rai said.
Lebanon’s Catholic schools have a historical role of educating students from all religions, Christian and Muslim alike. In Muslim-majority regions, up to 90% of the students are Muslim.
Known for their high level of academics, the schools are typically trilingual, with students learning in Arabic, French and English.
Most recent figures from the secretary-general show that there are 185,000 students in Lebanon’s 360 Catholic schools.
Parents are facing the new school year with concern over how they will pay tuition fees, let alone all the daily necessities for their families that have become out of reach.
Since late 2019, the Lebanese currency has lost more than 90% of its value, fueling triple-digit inflation and destroying purchasing power.
As part of its ongoing response to Lebanon’s dire situation, the pontifical agency Aid to the Church in Need announced Sept. 7 its “Back to School” aid program in Lebanon, which will benefit 30,000 students and more than 6,000 teachers in nearly 200 Catholic schools.
“For centuries, Catholic schools have been a pillar of the Christian presence in Lebanon. Today, these schools face immense pressures that might erase them from Lebanon. If the schools disappear, many Christian communities could become historical footnotes. For Christianity to survive and remain relevant, the schools need our support,” said Edward Clancy, director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need in the U.S.
ACN’s $2.28 million aid package includes tuition aid for families; stipends for teachers; installation of solar panels for some Catholic schools and materials for students.
The stipends are a necessity for teachers who, like employees in all sectors in the country paid in Lebanese currency, have seen their salaries devalued amid the currency crash such that earnings previously equal to $1,000 are now worth $50.
With some 300 days of sunlight, solar power is a viable solution to Lebanon’s deplorable electricity situation, particularly for schools.
Lebanon’s state electricity provider currently supplies power only for about two hours a day. Private generators must fill in the gap. Skyrocketing fuel costs with the currency crash have rendered that option impossible for many families and schools alike.
“This is one of the nightmares for the operation of schools,” Clancy said.
As Lebanon’s crises continue, “The great risk is that Catholic schools will be forced to close, which would also be a long-term disaster for coexistence between religions, since these institutions play a vital role in maintaining relations between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon that are an example of coexistence for the entire Middle East,” Clancy said.
For the third consecutive year, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan announced that the patriarchate is exempting Syriac Catholic students from school fees for the entire academic year in the community’s schools in Lebanon, as well as providing school aid for many Syriac Catholic children in other schools in Lebanon, “considering this step a cornerstone in the service of the mission of education that has always distinguished the church.”