The church-run schools in East Jerusalem are considered the best schools in that part of the city — some would say in the entire city. Their Christian administrators are proud of the religious tolerance and openness that typifies their institutions, where a majority of the students are Muslim.
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But in recent years, these schools’ adamant refusal to let female students wear a hijab on school grounds has threatened to disrupt this openness. The tensions reached their peak in the lead-up to this year's graduation, with parents and student protests against the ban escaping school grounds and marring Christian-Muslim relations throughout East Jerusalem.
Two incidents ignited the protest. The first was the refusal of Schmidt College for Girls, a German Catholic school near Damascus Gate, to let a girl wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf into the graduation ceremony. The name of the student, a graduating senior, was deleted from the program, and when her parents protested, they were removed from the auditorium. Other parents who were there say that members of the Palestinian Authority’s preventive security force helped eject the couple, in cooperation with school administrators.
The second incident was a demonstration against the decision by the Rosary Sisters School, in Beit Hanina, to add to its ban on wearing a hijab on school grounds a provision prohibiting all items of clothing that hint at the wearer’s religious or political affiliations. The new rule set off a parent protest on Facebook and a demonstration that took place three weeks ago.
“The parents are fed up. There were 11 girls at the school who wanted to attend commencement in hijab and were forbidden to do so,” said a person involved with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Demonstrators held signs saying, “I won’t give up the hijab,” and participants demanded that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas intervene on their behalf.
After the demonstration, social media sites were abuzz, and one anonymous poster even threatened to burn down the school. Residents of East Jerusalem speak of unprecedented tensions between the small Christian community and the Muslim majority. “Wise people from both sides are trying to calm the waters and limit the topic to the school campuses,” says the Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center, Yusef Daher, adding, “I hope it succeeds.”
It’s not only in Jerusalem that the hijab is a hot-button issue, of course. In France, after a long public debate, a law banning the wearing of all “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools famously went into effect in 2004, as part of the strict separation of church and state.
During the school year, the students of East Jerusalem’s church schools wear uniforms, and the ban on hijab is generally accepted without complaint. In any event, all the students are female, decreasing the discomfort that observant Muslim girls might feel about being in public with their heads uncovered. But attending the commencement ceremonies are many men who are strangers to most of the girls; in such circumstances, observant Muslim girls and women would normally cover their heads.
Adding to the increasing tension surrounding the issue is the general rise in religious observance among East Jerusalem Muslims.
In the early 1990s, then-PA head Yasser Arafat spoke to a number of senior education officials in the city about the subject to no avail. Four years ago, a teacher was fired from Schmidt after insisting on attending the graduation ceremony wearing a hijab herself. The teacher, Nadra Nimri, took her case to the Jerusalem Labor Court, which ruled in the school’s favor, upholding its decision. After Nimri appealed to the National Labor Court, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement that included a more generous severance package for the teacher.
But in court, the school’s director, Nikolaus Kircher, said by way of explaining the principle that guided him: “This policy was very successful for 125 years and I am very proud when visitors come from abroad and ask about the relations between Muslims and Christians, students and teachers.
I tell them, look in the yard, do you see differences? The school’s board is very clear that there be no difference between teachers and students, and we were very successful at keeping it that way until this case.”
In recent years the church schools, like many other private educational institutions in East Jerusalem, have begun receiving funds from the Education Ministry, as a result of the so-called Nahari Law, whose original purpose was to increase funding to ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. Parents of students at church schools hoped that the money would be accompanied by increased state supervision that would keep administrators from enforcing the prohibitions against hijab wearing, but the government is in no rush to intervene.
The Latin Patriarchate, which is responsible for both Schmidt and Rosary Sisters, declined to issue a response. In a statement, the Education Minister said the schools supervisor and the ministry’s legal department are dealing with the matter.