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Highest Dutch court orders government to fund new Islamic school

By Bart H. Meijer

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Netherlands' highest court on Wednesday told the government it must fund an Islamic school in Amsterdam that authorities had tried to ban, tapping into a divisive debate about the role of Muslim culture in Dutch society.

Deputy Education Minister Sander Dekker withheld funding for the school in 2014, shortly after a member of its board expressed support for militant group Islamic State in a Facebook post.

But the Council of State reversed that decision, concluding there were "no valid grounds" to refuse funding as the person in question had since left the board, which had publicly condemned the posting.

Dekker said the government had no choice but to comply, even though the school "does not equate to what I believe is socially desirable."

The public secondary school will offer Dutch-language education with a focus on Islam to approximately 180 students. It will be the second school of its kind in the Netherlands, it said on its website.

Another Dutch Islamic school was closed in 2010 after the national schools inspectorate ruled the education it provided was sub-standard.

The court ordered Amsterdam's city council to provide a building for the new school, which is now expected to open in September.

Dekker said he continued to have no confidence in the school's management and had asked the inspectorate to immediately monitor if it met quality requirements.

"We need to do all that we can to ensure that children have access to the education they deserve and that they learn what it means to be part of our Dutch society," he wrote in a statement following the ruling.

Roughly 5 percent of the Dutch population of 17 million are Muslim, and the country has integrated hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Morocco and Turkey since the 1970s.

But a debate about the benefits and drawbacks of immigration has become increasingly polarized with the arrival of migrants in greater numbers from other Muslim-majority countries.

One of the country's highest-profile figures is anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party finished second to Prime Minister Marc Rutte's conservative VVD Party in national elections in March.

Amsterdam council also still had concerns about the school's board, a spokesman said earlier.

Under Dutch law, city authorities provide school buildings while the national government is responsible for education funding.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and John Stonestreet)