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France: secular state to double funding to Christian schools in Middle East

French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome, on 26 November 2021 [ITA Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency]
French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome on 26 November 2021 [ITA Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

Secular France is doubling its funding for Christian schools in the Middle East while pursuing a wide-scale crackdown against French Muslim communities which has led to Muslim schools being shut down by the authorities.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the funding during an event at the Élysée Palace in Paris last week. "Supporting Christians in the Middle East is an age-old commitment in France, a historic mission," Macron is reported as saying by France 24.

Financial aid for Christian schools in the Middle East is expected to double this year, from €2 million ($2.2m) to €4m ($4.5m). Programmes supporting Christian schools will be co-funded by the French government and the religious organisation L'Œuvre d'Orient.

The announcement was a surprise, because France prides itself on its unique brand of secularism which insists on a total separation of religion from the state. In recent years, it has justified its crackdown on Muslims and expressions of the Islamic faith in the name of defending French secularism.

In 2020, for example, Paris's only Muslim school was shut down as pressure was increased on Europe's largest Muslim community. Officially, the school is secular and follows the national curriculum. Nevertheless, it was shut down by the French authorities because the school management permitted its majority of Muslim students to wear the head-covering if they chose to do so. The hijab has been the focus of an official campaign against religious symbols in public spaces since 2004. Muslim women and girls are forbidden to wear the headscarf in universities and schools, for example.

READ: Sculpture of Algeria resistance hero vandalised in France 

Macron's decision to double the funding to Christian schools is said to be for electoral reasons. The resurgent right wing parties in France and across Europe in general peddle a political narrative that is deeply hostile to Muslims. The plight of Christians in the Middle East has become a powerful rallying cry. It's believed that the French president is reacting to this development and is looking to boost his standing amongst far-right constituencies and improve his chance of re-election later this year.

Although the right-wing narrative about Christians in the Middle East claims that they are threatened by Muslims and Islam, Church leaders have warned that Palestinian Christians face the threat of "extinction" from "radical" Israeli groups. Ironically, the European right and far-right generally support the Zionist state of Israel.

The French government funded 174 Christian schools in the Middle East in 2021. Of these, there are 129 in Lebanon, 16 in Egypt, seven in Israel, 13 in the occupied Palestinian Territories and three in Jordan.

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