Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Christianity and the Middle East: Bethlehem University Celebrates Silver Jubilee

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Christianity and the Middle East: Bethlehem University Celebrates Silver Jubilee

Article excerpt

CHRISTIANITY AND THE MIDDLE EAST: Bethlehem University Celebrates Silver Jubilee

Bethlehem University celebrated its 25th anniversary during the week of Oct. 4 to 10 with an international gathering that included many of its founders and former faculty and staff, along with local and international religious and political leaders.

The university's Silver Jubilee was observed in the context of a stalled peace process, worsening economic hardships in the Palestinian territories, and in the midst of major planning and development for the year-long event of Bethlehem 2000 and the anticipated legions of visitors and pilgrims expected to converge on this West Bank town for the new millennium celebrations.

The only Roman Catholic institution of higher learning in Palestine, Bethlehem University was established in 1973 to address the problem of Christian emigration from the Holy Land. It also serves an ecumenical role as the sole provider of higher learning for both Christian and Muslim youth in the densely populated areas in and around Bethlehem and East Jerusalem.

The establishment of Bethlehem University resulted from the 1964 pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI, who observed the lack of educational opportunities for Palestinian youth and the threats to the continued existence of an active Christian community in the land where Christianity began.

There followed several years of feasibility studies by the Congregation for Eastern Churches in Rome and the De La Salle Brothers, also known as Brothers of the Christian Schools, a 318-year-old Catholic religious order with a worldwide educational mission and over a hundred years of experience in the Holy Land as educators of Palestinian youth.

The Brothers subsequently took over the day-to-day administrative tasks and today count Bethlehem University among more than 70 of their colleges, universities and other institutions of higher education around the world.

The university started as three small classrooms in a 100-year-old building housing the La Salle Frères Secondary School. Initial funding came from Rome, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in New York, and from German Catholics of Misereor and the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. About 90 students were accepted for the first year, though 180 had applied, and on Oct. 1, 1973, Bethlehem University opened its doors, only five days before the October War between Israel, Syria and Egypt began.

From its inception, Bethlehem University has been subjected to frequent closures by the Israeli military, including a three-year closure during the volatile period of the intifada from October 1987 to October 1990. During that period, four of the university's students were killed by bullets fired by Israeli soldiers.

Despite these difficulties, student enrollment has grown steadily over the years, although enrollment from Gaza, about a 60-mile commute, has steadily decreased due to closures and travel restrictions. Currently the university has more than 2,000 students.

But to those who live in the area and understand most the importance of having an institution like Bethlehem University available for young people, it is much more than a place of higher learning. It is a vibrant international community with a staff that includes, in addition to local Palestinians, expatriates from the U.S., Canada, the Philippines, and several European countries.

It's an international meeting place for interreligious and cultural understanding, and where Christians and Muslims live and study together pursuing degrees in education, the arts, science, business administration and nursing. …

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