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‘Flying blind’ in complex Holy Land:


From: The Harvester

Issue 01 / 2014

It is 50 years since Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to the Holy Land, which led to the foundation of Bethlehem University. Now vice-chancellor Br Peter Bray has invited Pope Francis to tour the university during his visit to the Holy Land in May.

NOW in its 40th academic year, Bethlehem University has an enrolment in which 70 per cent of its students are Muslim. “The percentage of Christians is diminishing, and it would be incredibly encouraging for him to come and visit a place where 30 per cent of the population is Christian,” says Br Peter Bray, a New Zealand-born De La Salle Brother. “It is a joint venture between the Vatican and the De La Salle Brothers, and it is about time he came and looked at his venture.” Br Peter was offered the role of vice-chancellor in May 2008 after 11 years as director of the Catholic Education Centre in Wellington. He has also taught in three universities in the US and has a doctorate in leadership.

At Br Peter’s 2009 inauguration as vice-chancellor, the chair of the university’s board of trustees, Fuad Kattan, said: “The notion of leaving your country for a new life in Bethlehem, in unfamiliar surroundings and a land of ongoing dispute, must have been a little scary.” In his six years in the region, having visited Gaza, Ramallah, and Jerusalem many times, Br Peter has never been fearful. “But it is very, very unpredictable area,” he says. “Many times I have felt angry, I’ve felt annoyed and frustrated.” The complexity of the region means “you are always flying blind”. “When I look back, I cringe at some of the things I did out of ignorance,” he says. “I’ve never been confronted so often with situations where I had absolutely no idea what to do.” One of his first major decisions at Bethlehem University was to increase fees, which had gone unchanged for nine years despite rising costs. He raised tuition by 30 per cent and students went on strike for three weeks. “When I think back to that first year it was a very, very difficult year,” he says. “I would seek advice, I’d pray about it, reflect on it, then just step out in faith and believe that God was with me. “In many ways I am more peaceful and confident that we’re going to get through this than I was back in 2009.” While he cannot see how it will come about, he firmly believes that one day there will be peace in Palestine. “[And] what Palestine is going to need when peace does come are educated, resourceful, creative Palestinians. “I think Bethlehem University is making a huge contribution to making that pool of people that is going to enable that to happen. “One of our commitments is to build this nation.” The university recently purchased a new piece of land to expand facilities after surveying locals and rewriting curricula to provide better employment opportunities for students. Job prospects for graduates are “dreadful”, Br Peter says, with unemployment at 47 per cent for people under 26, particularly for tourism graduates from the university’s Institute ofHotel Management.

“The 2009 bombing of Gaza meant the whole thing just dried up,” Br Peter says. “A lot of jobs were lost.” There is also a ‘brain drain’ of business graduates from Palestine into Jordan and the Gulf states. “We have some very, very highly qualified taxi drivers,” he says. One graduate told the vice chancellor: “I would love to stay in Palestine, but I’ve got to eat.” Br Peter is determined to secure better prospects for students who have pursued their education in the face of immense hurdles.

The university was closed 12 times – once for a period of three years – during the Israeli occupation of Bethlehem. Despite the closure, staff refused to bow, and taught small classes in homes, churches and hotels. Br Neil Kieffe, the college’s academic adviser during that period, remembers just one semester where the semester went as planned. Even now students from the other side of the wall face daily checkpoints just to get to campus. One female student told Br Peter: “The worst part is coming in the bus up to the checkpoint, and wondering, this time what is it going to be? “Is the soldier just going to wave the bus through ... [or] are we going to be strip-searched?” Br Peter is full of admiration when he says: “All of those things have happened to her. Every day, every day she came back to Bethlehem University. “It’s that sort of determination and resilience I find inspiring.” Another student nearly missed the entrance exam when her taxi was stopped by a flying checkpoint. She waited for an hour, then squared her shoulders and started walking. “The soldiers start shouting they didn’t shoot her, fortunately – but she kept walking. “She was 17 at that stage, this gutsy little girl.”

Br Peter is in awe of his students and their “courage to not let the circumstances determine who they are”. He is also “very, very fortunate” to be part of a community of Brothers who have demonstrated their own courage and solidarity. During the 2002 siege at the Church of the Nativity, when Bethlehem was locked down by the Israelis, the US consul-general arranged for safe passage for the Brothers. “To a man, they said they were not going to leave,” Br Peter says. “One of those Brothers says: ‘If we had gone, we’d have lost the faith of the Palestinian people’. “That was 2002. When I got there in 2008 the Palestinians were still talking about it – ‘the Brothers stayed’.” Br Peter shared stories like these during a public lecture in Sydney on 6 February. “I think the narrative that most dominates the world is not the Palestinian one,” he says. “My standing in solidarity with them requires me to alert people to it.”

Br Peter’s prayer life has changed “quite radically” from his days in New Zealand. “As a faith journey, it’s a much richer life,” he says. “I find it fascinating to be in Bethlehem. Bethlehem!”

“We have Mass in our chapel and often I’ve heard the priest say ‘And He took bread’, and I think Seven kilometres from here, He took bread’.” While visiting the Franciscans at Tiberias and overlooking the Sea of Galilee he is struck by the notion that “this is the lake, this is the lake that He walked on”.

And each Christmas, after Midnight Mass in the early hours of Christmas Day, he and another Brother make their way to the grotto. “I can’t find words ... to be in the grotto on Christmas morning, it’s just something really, really special.” It is by far the most difficult job he has ever had, he says, in terms of its complexity and unpredictability, and the constant restrictions. “But I’ve never worked in a place where it is so obvious that what we’re doing is worthwhile. “When you see students emerging from the place, you can put up with all that stuff, when you see that sort of result.

“Sometimes I find it really difficult to believe that in this stage in my life I get to be there. “It’s just a real privilege.”

By Sharyn McCowen (reproduced with permission from The Catholic Weekly)

Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine