‘Oasis of Peace’ In area of world filled with turmoil, the Catholic university is symbol of interreligious success -by Matthew Bunson
With Christmas approaching, the eyes of the world turn once again to the city of Bethlehem. As has been the case for many years, much of the attention has focused on the challenges and crises facing the city where Our Lord was born. Bethlehem’s 25 percent unemployment and 22 percent poverty rate are driving Bethlehemites to emigrate, and among them are many Christians. Where the Christian population in the city 50 years ago was 70 percent, today it is around 15 percent. Such are the economic and political problems — including the towering Israeli security wall that separates the city physically and symbolically from Jerusalem — that it can be difficult to find reasons for hope or optimism for the future.
A light in darkness
One place where it is possible to look for some light, however, is Bethlehem University, the only Catholic university in the Holy Land, a school described by Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, as “an oasis of peace where Muslim and Christian students and teachers live, study and work in concord and harmony.”
Any visitor to Bethlehem eventually notices the impressive campus operated by the De La Salle Brothers, also known as the Brothers of Christian Schools, on Fréres Street, perched on the highest point in the city. The influence of the school also becomes clear in conversation with local leaders, especially in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the diocese for Latin-rite Catholics in the Holy Land.
Since its founding in October 1973 — when it started with 112 students — the school has claimed more than 15,000 graduates and currently has an enrollment of 3,254 students, including 330 graduate students, who study in Bethlehem and Qubeibeh near Ramallah. Graduates hold a host of jobs across the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and some return to serve as faculty. One of them, Vera Baboun, came back to work at the university for 21 years as a teacher of English literature and also as assistant dean of students. A Catholic, in 2012 she was elected the first female mayor of Bethlehem. She considers herself “a daughter” of the university’s De La Salle teaching tradition and views the school as one of the great treasures of the city she now runs.
“Usually you graduate from a school,” she said, “but Bethlehem University has a tradition, and as a teacher and a student I have been raised on that tradition. That affects my life also today. How to be efficient, to work with honesty and decency and most importantly with faith, with (Jesus) in your heart.”
This tradition is especially crucial given the violence that has touched the faculty, staff and students over the years. The school has been closed 12 times by the Israeli military, including a three-year period from October 1987 until October 1990 during the First Palestinian Intifada, the uprising against Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The scars of the fighting can still be seen in the buildings.
In March 2002, when Bethlehem was the center of fierce firefights and the Church of the Nativity was the site of a siege between Israeli troops and Palestinians, four Israeli anti-tank missiles struck the university. Three hit the Millennium Hall complex that had been dedicated only the year before and one smashed into the Palestinian Cultural Heritage Center in the library. The hole in the wall of the library caused by the missile has been carefully preserved with a glass cover.
Today, many of the students who attend the university and live in Jerusalem face daily travel restrictions and Israeli military checkpoints. One of them, Dalal, a 22-year-old daughter of a German woman and a Palestinian, makes the uncertain trip every day from Jerusalem through the security zones. She had studied in Germany and came back to the Holy Land to finish her degree in social work, but the hardships are worth it because of the reputation and level of accreditation the university offers.
Considered one of the best students at the university, Dalal embodies as well the atmosphere of harmony among the Christian and Muslim students and the surprising demographics of the student body. Visitors to the school are often shocked to learn that 74 percent of the students are Muslim, and even more surprised that 77 percent of the students are women.
At a time when Christian-Muslim relations seem at a low point in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere across the Middle East, the university is a unique place — a Catholic institution of higher learning where Muslims and Christians can meet and build cultural and social bridges for the future.
Sami Yousef, head of the Pontifical Missions Society for the Holy Land and a former professor, stresses the importance of this process.
“For many of the Muslim students who come from places like Hebron or the outlying villages,” he told Our Sunday Visitor, “this is really their first exposure at the age of 18 to any Christian presence, symbols or individuals … and yet when they open up their eyes, Christianity for them is something very dear to their heart. All of a sudden you are talking about people who are of the same language and the same culture that are your neighbors, and you start to build up these relationships and respect for Christian institutions.”
This was the vision intended from the start by the Christian Brothers, and the Holy See has worked to help. The papal nuncio to Israel and apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine, for example, holds the post of university chancellor and acts as chief adviser to the vice chancellor in expressing the concerns of the Holy See. The Vatican also encourages the vital task of institutional development and fundraising.
The Christian Brothers have done exemplary work, but they are keenly aware of the degree to which the university has relied over the decades on generous help from across the globe. Only 40 percent of the university’s operating costs come from tuition, so the school benefits greatly from support from 29 countries. The United States provides the most assistance, followed by Australia, France and Germany. The members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem have also provided crucial assistance over the years.
Supporters want to help preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land. But there is the complementary goal of seeing a school where Christians and Muslims study together, and not merely survive but flourish. As Bishop Shomali emphasizes, Bethlehem University is “a Catholic institution where ethical values of tolerance, dialogue, teamwork, respect of the other and the Christian values are the daily bread. Although Bethlehem University is a small one in terms of numbers, it remains an oasis of peace and dialogue in a torn and divided Middle East.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent. He visited the Holy Land in November.