The Mar Elias campus, a complex of Christian educational institutions in the village of Ibillin near Shfaram, covers a steep slope. It includes a kindergarten, an elementary school, a high school and a university, which, according to information provided by the Council of Higher Education, is likely to soon become the first Arab academic campus in Israel.

The senior vice president of these institutions, Dr. Raed Mualem, knows no rest. His main project at the moment is expanding studies to branches in Nazareth and Mi'ilya, a Christian town in western Galilee, at a planned investment of tens of millions of dollars. About 1,300 students are now studying in the various educational frameworks in Ibillin. "We are apparently the first in the country to offer pedagogical continuity, from kindergarten through high school and university," says Mualem.

Mualem, 46, was born to a family from Mi'ilya, where "anyone who doesn't end up with a bachelor's degree seems strange," as he puts it. He received his bachelor's degree from Oranim School of Education, and later completed a master's degree and a doctorate at Tel Aviv University. Upon his return from further studies in the United States, he joined the president of the Mar Elias educational institutions, Archbishop Elias Chacour, in developing the campus.

Although the Mar Elias Educational Institutions officially belong to the Catholic Church, one-third of the staff are Jewish, and about 60 percent of the students are Muslims. There is a similar ratio among students at the university, which in recent years has operated as a branch of the University of Indianapo0lis, but is soon to receive recognition as an independent institution in its own right. About 220 students are enrolled in three departments there: computer sciences, environmental protection and communications. An expanded curriculum is due to include a paramedic track and "peace studies."

Mualem also serves as a board member of the umbrella organization for the 29 church schools throughout Israel, with about 27,000 children and teenagers. As opposed to the situation in Ibillin, nationwide it turns out that the Muslim students constitute about 36 percent of all the student body.

In recent years, church-run schools have approached the top of the list of institutions with the highest percentage of students who excel in matriculation exams; indeed, the seven non-Jewish high schools included in the list of the 30 outstanding schools all belong to the church network. Moreover, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Christian students are more likely to qualify for a matriculation certificate than their Jewish and Muslim counterparts. In addition, dropout rates from the school system in communities with a Christian majority are among the lowest in the country.

Mualem rejects the claims about the selectivity of the church institutions in accepting students. "Aside from one or two schools, all our institutions operate on the assumption that the child who begins in kindergarten also finishes 12th grade and takes the matriculation exams," he says.

He claims that "we have high achievements, which may arouse envy, but we can't be blamed for the failure of the state school system. Our schools are open to everyone, and the fact is that Muslim students come to us, too. The secret is to invest in the essence of education: a dedicated administration, teachers with a sense of responsibility - rather than in the surrounding politics."

In recent months Mualem has been working with the Education Ministry to bring about a change in the budgeting of the Christian elementary schools. Because the organizations involved in these institutions belong to the "recognized but unofficial" category, the budget they receive is only 65 percent of that granted to official institutions.

"If there is a model in Israel for economic efficiency and educational effectiveness it is us," Mualem claims. "We receive the smallest budget and have the greatest number of achievements."

Contributions from all over the world and payment by the parents - about NIS 1,000-NIS 3,500 annually - cover the lacking funds.

In 1993 Israel and the Vatican signed a convention under which it was agreed that "the Holy See and the State of Israel once again declare the right of the Catholic Church to establish, maintain and administer educational institutions at all levels, in harmony with the rights of the state."

Mualem says that government ratification of the agreement will lead to recognition of the unique nature of the Christian schools - for example, when it comes to appointing the principals - but will also enable proper budgeting, like that of schools in the official education system.

Mualem: "Everyone boasts of our achievements, but they provide the financial coverage. There's nothing to be done, apparently we have to continue pressuring the government."