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In Palestine, Bethlehem Catholic University stands as a beacon of hope



November 2, 2015

By Hugues Lefèvre / Posted 20/10/2015 at 16:55

Source :

In the Palestine Territory a dozen kilometres from Jerusalem, the Catholic University of Bethlehem has been striving for almost forty years to provide quality education in a context full of tension.

«It is not our mission to convert Muslims to Christianity. Our vocation is to provide all Palestinians with a solid education leading to a career». Brother Peter Bray, a New Zealander, is the Rector of Bethlehem University. When passing through France, he spoke to the future graduates of LaSalle Beauvais, giving them a vivid picture of the life of students in Palestine.

Bethlehem University exists amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. «Throughout its history of nearly forty years, it has been closed down twelve times by the Israelis». During the first Intifada, the doors of the University remained closed for three years (1987-1990). «Some professors decided all the same to continue teaching their courses, but they had to do it clandestinely. Teachers and students used to meet in apartments in groups of nine, since the Israeli army forbade gatherings of more than ten people».

Even today, the walls of the University show the visible signs of that turbulent history in the marks left by bullets.

The University enrolls more than 400 students from Gaza

The idea of a University in Bethlehem was born during the visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in 1964. Almost ten years later, it opened its doors under the direction of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded in 1680 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and responsible for a network of 72 Universities throughout the world.

Today, Bethlehem University has more than 3,000 students. Some of them travel in from a distance. «Since its beginnings, it has accepted more than 400 students from the Gaza Strip», said the University, Rector, and he went on to explain how complicated that process was for the administration.

Although the University is «Catholic», only a little more than a quarter of the students are Christian. The rest are Muslim.  «The Palestinians are a cultivated people and the women are hungry for knowledge», said Brother Peter.

Degrees in Health, Business Studies and Hotel Management

The University has five strands of study: healthcare / business and commerce / tourism and hotel management / the arts / education with teacher training. It enjoys an excellent reputation. Indeed, «All Catholic schools in the Near East are highly thought of», said Brother Peter. «In Egypt for example, many from the upper classes have passed through Catholic schools, which are noted for their quality and their respect for all faiths.»

In a town where 23% of the people are unemployed, the University seeks to give young people the skills which will help them to find employment. The course in business studies suffers from a shortage of outlets, but «tourism and hotel management are in demand. «The Holy land attracts many pilgrims, so that sector could develop even further» according to the Rector. Still, activity is precarious, because it depends on the political and military situation in the region.

The Vatican gives more than a million dollars every year

Bethlehem University costs about 4,000 dollars per student (3,500€). Nevertheless, thanks to a system of grants nobody pays full fees. In some cases students pay nothing. To finance the annual budget of 15 million dollars, the University relies on subsidies and donations. Every year, it receives a cheque for almost one million dollars from the Vatican. The donations come mostly from the USA and Canada. «The other miracle of Bethlehem, is that we manage to stay within our budget every year!» joked the Rector.

Two hours to travel less than twenty kilometres

«Difficulties in mobility are a serious problem for Palestinian students», he went on to say. Students who do not live in Bethlehem can lose an enormous amount of time in travel, especially because of the Israeli checkpoints. «I recall one student who lived in East Jerusalem who travelled by bus every day to the University. When she boarded the bus, she knew that it might take half an hour or one hour or even two hours to travel less than twenty kilometres».

«On one occasion, a student living in Gaza needed to come back to Bethlehem for her final exams in order to graduate. Even after several attempts, the Israeli army would not allow her to leave Gaza. Faced with that situation, three of our professors went there to enable her to sit her exams».

Every year, ten students go for study periods in the USA

Brother Peter tells a string of stories. «Astonishing things happen in the Holy Land. I am from New Zealand, so I can go to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem without any trouble. But I know some Palestinian Christians who have never been able to go there». To enable people to leave this «prison», the University tries to organize partnerships with establishments abroad. Although visas are difficult to obtain, ten students every year go to do periods of study in the USA.

Some student have never met any Christians

For those who are concerned about the increasing number of Muslim students, Brother Peter had a quick answer full of faith. «You can view that as an opportunity. It means that more non-Christians can get to know what Christianity really is!»

Without ever trying to convert people, the University tries to combat ignorance and irrational fear. «One Muslim student told me that before coming here he had never come across any Christians and that he had been told terrible things about them. By living beside them in the University, he had reached a better opinion of them. Now, his best friend is a Catholic».

Even though he is not very optimistic about future developments in the region, the Rector continues to hope that the conflict will be resolved. «History shows that impossible situations are sometimes mysteriously resolved ». For its part, Bethlehem University today remains a beacon whose light brings hope and mutual acceptance among people of the near East.

Bethlehem University

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