Bethlehem University – an oasis of peace in the Holy Land

Brother PeterHEATHER R MATHEW

Students at Bethlehem University face many restrictions in their daily lives, the institution’s vice-chancellor Brother Peter Fray (pictured) told a February public gathering at Elm Street Hall in North Melbourne.

Movement is even more restricted since the 2005 encirclement of Bethlehem by the separation wall, which has four checkpoints on its perimeter.

Travel within Israel/ Palestine is subject to numerous physical barriers apart from the separation wall: there are many checkpoints scattered across the land, as well as ‘flying checkpoints’ that appear unpredictably.

Checkpoints or barriers may be closed arbitrarily, requiring often arduous detours.

A student from Jerusalem, for example, cannot predict how long the bus journey may take. Once the bus arrives at the checkpoint occupants may be subjected to a cursory check  or they may be required to leave the bus and stand for long intervals in the hot sun while their papers are checked. They may also be strip-searched.

Yet students display courage and resilience in confronting this uncertainty, anxiety and fear, which Brother Peter continues to find inspiring.

Resistance is not terrorism, Brother Peter reminded his audience.

It is important to resist, it takes courage and persistence.

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 attractive gardens carefully cultivated to offer students a sense of beauty, of calm, of safety that contrasts with their world outside.

Bethlehem University was established in 1973 as a joint venture between the Vatican and the De La Salle teaching order.

It has 16,000 graduates with a current enrolment of 3200 students.

While less than 2 per cent of the people of Israel/ Palestine are Christians, Bethlehem University ensures that around one-third of its students are Christian. This builds understanding and a sense of community, without proselytising.

The Church has a prophetic role: Bethlehem University aims to enact the words of Jesus from Gospel of John 10:10:  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The campus aims to  provide an environment, atmosphere and opportunities through which its students can live life to the full. It cannot allow fear to paralyse its mission, although Brother Peter said that he is often outside his comfort zone. The Christian presence is made visible through words and practices that are inclusive. This faith can be the antidote to fear.

Asked, ‘Is there a hope for change in Palestine?’ Brother Peter  said he holds little hope at the moment.

But then, with a note of optimism, he said: “Look at what happened in South Africa, Northern Ireland, the fall of communism in East Germany, and East Timor.”

Brother Peter Bray was presented by the congregation of Mark the Evangelist, North Melbourne, in collaboration with the Palestine/ Israel Ecumenical Network Inc. (PIEN).

To learn more or support the work of  Bethlehem University visit www.bethlehem.edu

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