by Jonathan Petre
AN ABORTIVE bomb attack on Archbishop Mercieca, Malta's leading churchman, hours after the Church had scored a major courtroom victory in its battle to prevent the Mintoff government taking over Catholic schools has dramatically raised tensions on the island.
III feeling betweeen the two sides — which has been mounting for several weeks — could erupt into street violence if government riot police attempt to prevent teachers and students entering unlicenced Catholic secondary schools on Monday, the official start of the scholastic year, according to Maltese Church officials.
A series of mass demonstrations, culminating on Tuesday last week when nearly 100,000 people — a third of Malta's population — held a rally outside Valletta, has been sparked off by government moves to take over the eight largest Catholic schools by refusing them licences to operate.
The eight schools were refused licences after they had failed to accept a set of conditions imposed on them by the 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.
Archbishop Mercieca challenged the government's action in the courts, claiming it to be unconstitutional. Early this week the judges ruled in favour of the Archbishop, saying that the law passed by the government last year to enable them to take possession of the schools was in violation of the constitution which protects freedom of religion, worship and conscience.
Dr Carmelo Missud Bonnici, the deputy Prime Minister who said in a recent interview that the government would carry out its plan whether or not the court found in favour of it, immediately summoned the judges to demand an explanation. A Church spokesman said the government would be seen to be undemocratic if it ignored the court ruling, but added that it has the option to appeal against the decision.
A large bomb planted on the steps of the Archbishop's residence on Tuesday night failed to explode and was discovered the following morning by a cleaner. Army experts who defused the bomb said that a detonation device had failed to operate. The Archbishop was reportedly very shaken by the incident.
Relations between the Church and the government have worsened since early August when parents of pupils at the eight schools refused a licence received a letter from the Ministry of Education asking them to send in details of their children's academic results so that the Ministry could make alternative arrangements for free state-controlled education.
But thousands of parents defied the government's request and instead mo.unted a protest rally in the streets of Valletta. Vvrednesday last week was the date given by the government when teachers and students should transfer to the new schools, but only five of 200 teachers and 250 of their students obeyed the order.
Most of the 4,000 pupils of the eight Catholic schools and their parents answered a Church call to attend a prayer meeting instead.
The following evening, between eight and ten thousand parents and children marched outside Valletta. During the march the parents reaffirmed their decision to ignore the staterun schools.
The Archbishop has said the Catholic schools will open despite government warnings that they would forcibly close them.
The main conditions demanded by the state are that no fees should be charged by private schools. The definition of fees has been extended to include all kinds of remuneration or compensation, including a donation or contribution.
I he Archbishop, in public accounts, has claimed that the Maltese Church already faces an annual deficit, and could not run the 19 schools from its own funds.
Many of the parents have formed themselves into associations and are prepared to defend themselves, and their schools, physically if neccesary from possible take over by the police or army.
"Only God knows what will happen on Monday or whenever the schools reopen," a Church official in Malta told the Catholic Herald this week. "They could try and prevent pupils entering the schools, or they could let everyone in and then prosecute. I only hope we can avoid violence."