By Jonathan Petre TENS of thousands of ,protesters are expected to take to the streets in Malta today to voice their opposition at government plans to take over Catholic secondary schools.
The demonstration, likely to be the biggest in the history of the island, has been sparked off by government moves to take over the eight largest Catholic schools by refusing them licences to operate during the next scholastic year. Recently more than 25,000 people out of the total population of 300,000 turned out in a similar protest march.
The eight schools were refused a government licence after they had failed to accept a set of conditions imposed on them by Mr Dom Mintoff's socialist administration. The government has threatened to take over the running of all 19 church schools in accordance with its declared aim to provide free education in all schools.
Parents of pupils at the eight schools have over the weekend received a letter from the
Ministry of Education. asking them to send in details of their
child's academic results so the Ministry can mhke alternative arrangements for free education.
But church officials, working under Archbishop Joseph Mercieca of Malta, advised parent's to bring the letter and information into the schools and sign a declaration pledging opposition to the government plan.
A Church spokesman told the _Catholic Herald the response to this request had been
overwhelming. Thousands of opponents of the Government have been joined by top Labour Party officials and their wives in signing the declaration.
"There is no doubt, when one sees the way people are responding, that a majority of the people of Malta want to retain the present system of Catholic schools. When high ranking members of the Labour Party are prepared to side with the Church and openly defy the Governemnt, Mr Mintoff should be worried," he said.
Archbishop Mercieca last week rejected Mr Mintoff's unilateral conditions, describing them as "unacceptable". He added: "We have the open support of the Vatican for our stand to keep the schools autonomous with their character unimpaired."
The main conditions demanded by the state are that no fees should be charged by private schools. The definition of fees had been extended to include all sorts of remuneration or compensation, including a donation or contribution.
The Archbishop, in published accounts, claimed that the Maltese Church already faced an annual.deficit, and could not possibly run the 19 schools free from its own funds.
The Catholic spokesman said that fees for the island's private schools were already very low. "The highest school fee is equivalent to no more than £100 a year. The lowest is equivalent to about £30 a year," he said. "The amount of money involved proves that the Government can only be interested in an ideological campaign against the Church."
Another spokesman added: "The pretext of free schooling was only a ploy for the Government to take over the schools and to brainwash the students in line with Mr Mintoff's declared aim to make the island a Socialist showpiece."
The schools, with the support of parents and pupils, have resisted successive attempts by the Government to impose restrictive measures. They have now formed associations to defend themselves and their schools, physically if necessary, from possible take over by the police or the Army.
The spokesman said that the schools would reopen on October 1 whatever the Government threatened. He did not rule out the possibility of the Archbishop taking the Government to court over its legal right to occupy the schools, adding that it was impossible to predict how the situation would develop.
Church schools in Malta, which teach about one third of the student population, remain very popular because of their high academic and disciplinary standards. The spokesman said that the Government's actions were very likely to substantially dent its support. He cites as evidence of Mr Mintoff's declining popularity the fact that very few supporters came out to cheer their Prime Minister at his birthday celebrations in the Labour stronghold of St Thomas Bay on Sunday.
"We are right, we are justified and we cannot surrender," the spokesman said.