Vice Chancellor speaks on education in Palestine

Bethlehem University – an Oasis of Peace in the Holy Land

A report from Heather Mathew, on the Public Meeting with Brother Peter Bray, Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University, held at the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist, North Melbourne on 20th February, 2017

Brother Peter acknowledged the capacity crowd, and explained that such gatherings and opportunities to speak matter immensely, enabling him to return to Bethlehem University and tell people that they are not forgotten by the outside world, that there are people overseas who care and are interested in their welfare and their world.  It helps to keep their hopes alive, and to know that as Palestinians they are not automatically equated with terrorism. Visitors are very important because visits gives students and staff a sense of solidarity with the outside world.

In speaking of the role of the University, Brother Peter contextualised the situation of the Palestinians through an area map illustrating the fact that some 10% of the land that was Palestine remains in Palestinian hands.

Brother Peter’s talk was interspersed with video clips of several students speaking about their experiences, their hopes, their fears, their yearning to live life to the full.

Restrictions for Students
Yet students at Bethlehem University face many restrictions in their daily lives. Movement has become even more restricted since the 2005 encirclement of Bethlehem by the separation wall and has four checkpoints on its perimeter. Travel within Israel/ Palestine is subject to numerous physical barriers apart from the extensive barrier of the separation wall: there are many checkpoints scattered across the land, there are also ‘flying checkpoints’ that appear unpredictably, metal gates, road blocks and road barriers. Checkpoints or barriers may be closed arbitrarily, without notice, requiring detours that may be arduous. A student who comes from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, for example, can never predict how long the bus journey may take, for once the bus arrives at the checkpoint the occupants may be subjected to a cursory check, they may be required to leave the bus and stand for long intervals in the hot sun while their papers are checked, they may be subjected to a strip-search.  The system is arbitrary, the student can never know what is going to happen. Fear and uncertainty is with them each day. Yet students display courage and resilience in confronting their anxieties and fears.

It is important to note that resistance is not terrorism. It is important to resist. It takes courage and persistence. Brother Peter told of one student who was challenged by the soldiers at a checkpoint and she just shrugged her shoulders and kept walking and passed through the checkpoint. She was determined to get to her exam. on time!  Brother Peter observed that fear leads to negativity and that the first duty is to be equal to a situation.

An Oasis of Peace

Once the students reach the campus of Bethlehem University however, they can feel safe.  At Bethlehem University, they are nurtured in a peaceful oasis with its attractive gardens carefully cultivated to offer students a sense of beauty, of calm, of safety that contrasts with their world outside.

The University is a joint venture between the Vatican and the De La Salle teaching order and was established at Bethlehem in 1973. It has 16,000 graduates and has 3200 students currently. More than 70% of the students are female. Some 73% of the students are Muslim and while less than 2% of the people of Israel/ Palestine are now Christians, Bethlehem ensures that around one-third of its students are Christian in order to build understanding and a sense of community but without proselytising. Israeli regulations prevent Jewish students from attending Bethlehem University.

Prophetic Role of the Church

To those who wonder why an avowedly Christian University has been set up in an environment where Christians are a small minority, Brother Peter explains that the mission of Bethlehem University is to enact the Gospel of John (10:10): to provide an environment and atmosphere and opportunities through which its students can live life to the full. Students are offered the opportunity to study in a safe environment, they are treated with respect. The University seeks to offer a beacon of hope and a quality higher education that will enable graduates to have better employment prospects and fit them for leadership roles in their communities. A constant watchword for the staff and administrators at Bethlehem University is: ‘is there a better way’?

Brother Peter quoted the words of the Patriarch Michel Sabbah, ‘resist any temptation to fear and despair’, while acknowledging that there is cause to be afraid, that fear must be confronted by reason. The audience was reminded that the first victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims, and that Christians and Muslims must stand together. In balancing the religious affiliations of its student body, the University can pursue its aim to build relationships between the two faith groups, and to encourage the development of open minds. In a graphic of the separation wall shown by Brother Peter, the graffiti of, ‘Bridges not walls!’ seemed to this writer to illustrate something of the work of Bethlehem University.

Bethlehem University seeks also to preserve the Palestinian culture and while opportunities for extracurricular activities are limited, it offers traditional dance events, for example.

Through his presentation, Brother Peter described the prophetic role of the church that Bethlehem University seeks to fulfil, without allowing fear to paralyse its mission. It has no political power or influence, except for the spoken word. As followers of Jesus, faith is enacted through words and thus no-one can be called the enemy, hate cannot be harboured. Through its institutions – schools, hospitals, clinics –  all are welcome. The Christian presence is made visible through words and institutions, and its faith can be the antidote to fear.

Responding to the question, ‘Is there a hope for change in Palestine’? Brother Peter holds out little hope at the moment; but then he said, ‘look at what happened in South Africa, Northern Ireland, the fall of communism in East Germany, and East Timor.’



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