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January 19, 2010

“I Left the University Uplifted”

An Excerpt from Albany Bishop Hubbard’s Middle East Diary

Bishop HubbardBishop Howard J. Hubbard visited Bethlehem University on 22 December 2009 as a member of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative. His reflections on the experience are excerpted below, and more thoughts on his NILI journey can be read here.

Bethlehem is less than 10 miles from Jerusalem, but with checkpoints and backups on the way it can take a couple of hours for non-Israelis to travel. Arriving at the University of Bethlehem was like a homecoming because its vice president, Brother Jack Curran, FSC, a Troy native and LaSalle Institute graduate whose family still attends St. Pius parish in Loudonville, was our host for the day.

Also present were two seminarians from our Diocese, Jay Atherton and Michael Taylor, who are in an exchange program with Our Lady of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein outside Chicago to study for three months at Bethlehem University.

The Christian Brothers have been in Bethlehem for 150 years. In 1973, the university was founded under the sponsorship of the Holy See and with the oversight of the Brothers of the Christian Schools of the United States. It is the first university in the West Bank and the only Catholic university in the Holy Land.

At the outset of our visit, we paused to pray before a memorial at the entranceway, erected to remember students killed as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the university’s inauguration.

As of 2008, Bethlehem University has had more than 10,000 graduates in the areas of the arts, business, accounting, education, religious studies, the sciences and hotel management. In 1989, the University established an institute for community partnership with a water, soil and environmental research unit, a nursing program and an heredity research laboratory.

The Millennium Building, which houses the auditorium where we gathered, had been built with assistance from U.S. aid. During the occupation of the Basilica of the Nativity earlier this decade, this building was bombarded by Israeli missiles provided, ironically, by the United States.

The mission of the university is to meet the needs of the Palestinian people. They face the problem of checkpoints, occupation and the limitation of movement and employment. The restrictions for permits are intolerable.

In October 2009, for example, Ms. Berlanty Azzam, a 21-year-old Christian woman who has been business student at the university since 2005, was arrested by Israeli military, blindfolded, handcuffed and moved from Bethlehem to Gaza against her will.

She said: “Since 2005, I refrained from visiting my family in Gaza for fear that I would not be able to return to my studies at the university. Now, just two months before graduation, I have been arrested and taken to Gaza in the middle of the night, with no way to finish my degree.”

She was scheduled to complete her bachelor’s degree in December 2009. She was removed from Bethlehem and taken to Gaza because her address is listed as the Gaza Strip, even though she has lived in Bethlehem since 2005.

In November, on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I wrote to Michael Oren, the ambassador of Israel to the United States, for a review of her case. To date, the problem has not been resolved.

In addition to its academic curriculum, the university provides outreach to the community including student mentoring, youth development, community activities and fostering relations between Christians and Muslim students. The economic income in the West Bank and Gaza is very low. However, the university has an excellent scholarship and subsidy program which permits many to matriculate who otherwise would be ineligible.

We heard presentations from three students. They said they don’t support Hamas, are not committed to revenge, but want to move forward. Unfortunately, however, most are pessimistic because their families have been living under occupation for more than 60 years.

The increasing Israeli settlements are a major challenge and a source of discouragement. Nevertheless, despite the manifold challenges they face, I left the university uplifted by what the Christian Brothers and their colleagues are doing and hopeful that this is the type of activity which will serve as a foundation for a better tomorrow.

Before leaving the town of Bethlehem, our bus pulled into Manger Square to visit the Basilica of the Nativity. What an awesome privilege: to visit the place of Christ’s birth two days before Christians throughout the world celebrate this miraculous event.

On Christmas Eve, our seminarians, Michael and Jay, would join Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal to march in procession through the square and to celebrate the sacred liturgy on this very spot where the Word was made flesh.

The Basilica of the Nativity is erected over the place where Jesus was born. It was built in the early fourth century by St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine. The place of Christ’s birth is in a small cave beneath the main altar where you must bend over and stoop into in order to venerate the sacred site.

Immediately adjacent to the crèche is the manger, which contains a small altar, and a few feet away is the hermitage where St. Jerome labored for years to prepare the Vulgate translation of the Scriptures, which has illumined Christians down through the centuries.

At this special place I prayed for peace in the Mideast; for peace in the world; for peace in our Diocese; for peace on behalf of all suffering from poverty, racism, violence, oppression and illness of any sort. During this Year for Priests, I prayed for all the priests in our Diocese and for the victims of clergy sexual abuse.

My Christmas celebration this year would be affected dramatically by being privileged to have been in this place where divinity united with humanity, and the shepherds, angels and magi came to pay homage to the newborn Prince of Peace.

My last memory of Bethlehem, unfortunately, was exiting the city through the forbidding and oppressive wall and of the armed guards who boarded our bus for a final security check. It is a reminder that 2,000 years after the birth of the Prince of Peace, the peace He came to bring to earth still remains elusive.

Note: From Dec. 16-23, 2009, I had the privilege of being part of a 19-person delegation from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI). NILI has brought together the leaders of more than 30 religious denominations in the U.S. to work within our own denominations and with the U.S. government to support presidential and congressional initiatives for Arab-Israeli/Palestinian peace. Our delegation journeyed to Amman, Jordan, to Israel and to the West Bank to hear firsthand the perspectives of religious and governmental leaders in these areas, as well as their sense of challenges and opportunities for peace.!


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