by KATE MAHONY
WELLINGTON — Every day, students at Bethlehem University in Palestine Occupied Territories face a barrage of barriers on their way to and from campus. For one third of the students, in settlements in East Jerusalem separated by the security wall, this means they need to go through the wall checkpoints — and long queues — twice a day.
For one student, according to vice chancellor Br Peter Bray, the worst part was not going through the wall, but her thoughts as the bus approached the checkpoint: Would she be strip searched, interrogated, or taken off the bus and forced to sit in the hot sun for an hour or so?
The de la Salle Brother and former director of the Wellington Catholic Education Centre has spent four years in his role there. In Wellington, at a meeting on July 17 hosted by the Catholic Bishops Committee for Interfaith Relations and Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, he described it as “challenging, complex, and the most difficult position” he’s ever had, yet also most rewarding.
Despite the difficulties, Br Peter said, many people are determined to seek quality education, and the fast growing roll sees the Catholic university “bursting at its seams”.
“We recently had 770 students graduate. To see how proud they are, that they got there in spite of everything, makes it, for me, an incredible place to be.”
The joint venture between the de la Salle Brothers and the Vatican, which began with 112 students 39 years ago, now has 3000 students, 14,000 alumni, and has recently acquired more land to expand.
Br Peter said that as well as the myriad of checkpoints in the region, which have increased since the introduction of the security wall — adding hours to short journeys — the university faced other difficulties. These included not being able to plan trips for students because of travel restrictions, and often not being able to bring in lecturers from other international institutions to fill crucial positions. But against this were many “good news” stories, such as a young woman sent on scholarship to the United States who is returning to teach at the university, in a new development Br Peter calls, “Growing Our Own”.
Perhaps to the surprise of some, the roll is 70 per cent Muslim and 30 per cent Christian. About 71 per cent are women. Sixty per cent of students come from Bethlehem, 30 per cent from Jerusalem, and 10 per cent from refugee camps and neighbouring villages.
The university requires all students to take a religious studies course, which looks at Christianity and Islam.
“We require the students [of both faiths] to sit beside each other and learn what each is about. My hope is our students will go back into their communities and begin to undermine prejudices there.
“Muslims feel comfortable coming to Bethlehem University. We are an unashamedly Christian university, but we are not a proselytising university.”
Br Peter said that although the outside world often has an impression of Palestinians as “terrorists with guns”, their students are ordinary young people who want a good education.
“What we try to do is offer a place where people feel safe, an oasis of peace. One of the biggest challenges is to keep hope alive, so that we are a beacon of hope.”
He sees the university being part of helping to build the nation.
“We offer degree courses comprising all the things that are needed to build a nation. There are some things we can do really well. We offer top quality graduate professional programmes in order to develop a people grounded in justice, in the promotion of the common good.”
Programmes include education, nursing and health science, hotel management and tourism, business administration and science, Masters in International Cooperation and Development, and Masters in Molecular Biotechnology. Planned programmes include diplomacy and foreign service, and social work.
From outside Palestine, “people can help with prayer, standing in solidarity with us, and financially”.
“The miracle of Bethlehem University is that we have survived for nearly 40 years, with 69 per cent of our operating budget coming from fundraising.”
More information: www.bethlehem.edu
A short DVD Bethlehem University —
Beacon of Hope can be accessed on the right hand side of the home page.
To support Bethlehem University financially, send donations to Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand with a designation for the Bethlehem University
project. Tax-deductible receipts available.
by KATE MAHONY