.- A law in the Gaza Strip segregating classrooms by sex threatens the existence of Christian schools in the territory, according to the head of a Franciscan group that supports Christians in the Holy Land.
In April, the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian territory on Israel's western border passed a law banning co-education for children above the age of nine. It also ensures that teachers and other staff are of the same sex as students.
“The goal is not integration but co-existence … and this recent ruling does not make that easy,” Father Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, said of the relations between Muslims and Christians in Gaza.
The Gaza Strip has been ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas since 2007. Of the territory's population of nearly 1.7 million, only 3,000 are Christians.
The ban on co-ed classrooms, due to take effect in September, will primarily affect Christian schools in the area. Most public schools, as well as those operated by the United Nations, are already sex-segregated according to Al Jazeera.
The law effectively threatens Christian schools in Gaza because of the prohibitive costs they will have to incur to provide for a substantial expansion in the number of classrooms and teachers.
“Having to close schools that are there for the very reason not only to educate but to encourage peace and cooperation among the various groups is very counterproductive,” Fr. Vasko said in a July 18 statement.
The statement added that the new law is “yet another threat to Christians in the Holy Land already under extreme pressure by both Israeli and Palestinian rule.”
Fr. Vasko said the co-existence of Muslims and Christians in the Gaza Strip means “we have to learn that each has their own identity but at the same time building positive relations together” and that “closing any Christian schools in the area would be a serious loss.”
Christians run five schools in the Gaza Strip, three of which are Catholic. Most of the students in the schools are Muslim.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem educates more than 1,000 Gazan children in their two schools in the territory, and the Rosary Sisters run another Catholic school in Gaza.
“We don't have the space and we don't have the money to divide our schools,” Fr. Faysal Hijazin, education director for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told the Catholic Herald last month.
“This will be a big problem.”