Christian Brothers seek support for Mideast peace and Bethlehem University

  • May 8, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - As they swing through North America drumming up interest and financial support for Bethlehem University , Br. Jack Curran and Br. Peter Bray of the Christian Brothers warn against any hard and fast convictions about who is right and who is wrong in the Middle East.

“To be pro one side or the other side is simplistic,” said Curran, the vice president for development at Bethlehem University. “But there has to be a truth some place in the middle.”

Tiny Bethlehem University, with less than 3,000 undergraduates and a sprinkling of graduate programs leading to masters degrees, isn’t going to singlehandedly find that truth and light the path to peace — but it has a role to play, said Bray.

“What’s going to be needed when peace does come is educated, resourceful, creative Palestinian people,” said the university’s vice chancellor. “Bethlehem University is making a significant contribution to creating that core of people.”

It’s been a tough road for the founders of the West Bank’s first university.

The idea for Bethlehem University was hatched during Pope Paul VI’s historic 1964 visit to the Holy Land. Back then Bethlehem and East Jerusalem were part of Jordan, and the refugee population there asked the pope to help them with a university. But it wasn’t until after the 1967 war that Archbishop Pio Laghi and West Bank and East Jerusalem leaders got together to launch the institution. It officially opened in October 1973.

Since then the Israeli military has closed it down three times, including a three-year shutdown from October 1987 to October 1990. Since 2006, students who live in East Jerusalem have had to come through the Israeli security wall to attend classes.

“The students who come through the checkpoints twice a day, they suffer the humiliations and yet they come,” said Bray. “That resilience is something that amazes me”

For Bethlehemites stuck on the wrong side of the wall the university is trying to create solutions to a 50-per-cent unemployment rate.

“With increased travel restrictions, the construction of the wall, the lack of freedom of movement for people, it’s been more and more difficult for students to get jobs in fields like business,” said Curran.

Programs in entrepreneurship and public administration are equipping young Palestinians for the jobs that do exist — and equipping them to create new jobs.

Attempts to create a more open university environment are hampered by mutual academic boycotts between Israeli and Palestinian academics, and a ban on Israeli students visiting Bethlehem University.

Despite these challenges the university has launched new programs and taken advantage of its international connections as a Catholic university. It has students completing PhD-level studies at the Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and at Columbia University in New York. When these Palestinian scholars return they will teach at Bethlehem University.

Bethlehem University also has one of five UNESCO biotechnology centres in the world working on breast cancer, hearing loss and agricultural research with international scholars. In 2005 Bethlehem University partnered with University College of Dublin, the University of Nijemegen in the Netherlands and the University of Pavia in Italy to launch its own masters program in international co-operation and development.

“One of the best kept secrets is that there are signs of hope in the Holy Land,” said Curran. “As members of the Catholic Church in particular... there’s a whole vast network of people who make it possible for this beacon of hope in Bethlehem to be in existence.”

Curran and Bray aren’t just looking for money when they travel to North America. They want audiences, such as the group they spoke to at St. Basil’s Church in Toronto April 21, to know there is a value to prayers and Christian solidarity in the Middle East.

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