Secular France is doubling its funding for Christian schools in the Middle East while continuing a large-scale crackdown on French Muslim communities that has led to authorities closing Muslim schools.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the funding during an event at the Elysee Palace in Paris last week. “Supporting Christians in the Middle East is a centuries-old commitment in France, a historic mission,” Macron reportedly said by France 24.
Financial aid to Christian schools in the Middle East is expected to double this year, from 2 million euros ($2.2 million) to 4 million euros ($4.5 million). Support programs for Christian schools will be co-financed by the French government and the religious organization L’Œuvre d’Orient.
The announcement came as a surprise, as France prides itself on its unique brand of secularism which insists on total separation of religion from state. In recent years, it has justified its repression against Muslims and expressions of Islamic faith in the name of defending French secularism.
In 2020, for example, the only Muslim school in Paris was closed as pressure mounted on Europe’s largest Muslim community. Officially, the school is secular and follows the national curriculum. Nevertheless, it was closed by the French authorities because the school management allowed its majority of Muslim students to wear the headgear if they wished. The hijab has been the subject of an official campaign against religious symbols in public space since 2004. Muslim women and girls are prohibited from wearing the headscarf in universities and schools, for example.
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Macron’s decision to double funding for Christian schools is believed to be for electoral reasons. Resurgent right-wing parties in France and across Europe in general are peddling political discourse that is deeply hostile to Muslims. The plight of Christians in the Middle East has become a powerful rallying cry. The French president is believed to be reacting to this development and seeking to strengthen his position among far-right constituencies and improve his chances of re-election later this year.
Although the right-wing narrative about Christians in the Middle East claims they are under threat from Muslims and Islam, Church leaders have warned that Palestinian Christians are under threat of ‘extinction’ by Israeli groups “radicals”. 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.