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“We’re not working for profit, just to cover the running costs of the schools,” continues the priest. “We try to offer a high-caliber academic education, with the minimum of tuition fees.”

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has run schools in what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for hundreds of years. Under the Ottoman Turks, the patriarchate was legally recognized as a millet, or self-governing community. “Thus, it had the right to open schools and educate the people here — by fully respecting the religious identity of every child,” explains Archimandrite Innokentios. This, he adds, is the origin of the church’s unique role in bringing together Christians and Muslims.

“We are the church that has lived in this land for the last 2,000 years, 1,400 of those years were with Muslims.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jerusalem patriarchate operated 32 schools in what is now Jordan and the West Bank.

“In every village we had a school where both Christians and Muslims used to send their children,” says the priest.

But these schools and other Orthodox institutions in the Middle East collapsed after the Ottoman and Russian empires dissolved at the end of World War I. Churches and schools of the Orthodox patriarchates of Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem had received significant subsidies from tsarist Russia, whose Orthodox tsar protected the Orthodox churches.

After the Bolsheviks assumed power in Russia, they severed the state’s ties to the Orthodox Church and confiscated its properties, the source of much of its wealth. Cut off from what was a lifeline, Orthodox patriarchates in the Middle East faced a massive financial crisis. Orthodox schools were forced to declare bankruptcy and all facilities were shuttered. When the patriarchate reopened its schools in the middle of the century, it could only afford to operate a few and at a fraction of their capacity. By 1998, eight schools, educating some 2,000 children, were active in Jordan.

Providing universal, quality education is among Jordan’s most significant challenges. According to the kingdom’s 2008 census, a third of the state’s 5.9 million people is between the ages of 5 and 15. The proportion of school-age children is not likely to decrease soon. Another 750,000 are under the age of 4.

The government is struggling to keep up. Building sufficient schools is only half the problem; staffing them with qualified teachers is the other. According to critics, government expenditure per student is low. The Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan estimates the government spent as little as $316 on each student in 2006. Government officials, however, claim it spent twice that amount.

International donors have pumped half a billion dollars into Jordan’s public school system, more than 90 percent of which was used to construct new schools. Still, many of Jordan’s public schools remain saddled with inadequate facilities, crowded classrooms and poorly trained teachers who emphasize rote memorization over writing and critical thinking.

Private education is huge business in Jordan. Thousands of private schools compete for students, ranging from tiny one-room schools charging as little as $100 a year to international preparatory facilities with annual tuition fees in the tens of thousands of dollars.

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