Easter in occupied, Palestinian Bethlehem

Life in occupied Palestine can be tough for students just trying to live daily life. I regularly publish the writings of… Brother Peter Bray, the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University (see here) and the following is his latest missive:

Easter Sunday 31 March 2013

I greet you again from this holy city of Jerusalem where we proclaim “He is Risen!” I am here with four other Brothers from our community at Bethlehem University staying in the Brothers community in the Old City. This provides us with the chance to gather with others to reflect on the Easter mystery. I find it hard to believe at times that I have such an opportunity.On Thursday evening after the mass in the Ecce Homo community we walked across to the Garden of Olives and then down the Kedron Valley to the church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, which is the place where Caiaphas met with Jesus. The steps leading up from the Kedron Valley to the church are reputed to be the ones that Jesus would have walked up. Just sitting on those steps in the darkness and… reflecting on Jesus actually walking up them is a moving experience.

It is a privilege and inspiration to be here.It pains me, however, to remember speaking to some Christian students at Bethlehem University two weeks ago and telling them my plans for Easter and seeing the look on their faces as many of them told me they had not been able to get permission to go through the Wall to do the same. In the same context it was revealing two weeks ago when we had a man from a think tank in Washington DC visit us prior… to President Obama’s visit. He wanted to get a sense of what was happening to Palestinians. We gathered a group of about thirty students to speak with him and in the course of the conversation it became apparent that about a quarter of them had never been through the Wall. Several mentioned they had not been able to get to the Holy Sepulcher or the Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray. Others mentioned they had never set eyes on the sea. It was rather a jolt for our visitor to be confronted with the raw implications of the occupation on our students.

I am continually amazed at the resilience of our students and the way they get on with their lives in the midst of all the restrictions they face. I think it is part of the role of Bethlehem University to provide a place where our students can experience something of a normal life. We make demands on them for their study and provide a clear context in which they can learn, but we work in such a way so as to create an oasis of peace on the campus. I want students to know when they step through the gate onto campus that they are safe and that there are people there who really care about them. I think this is a very important aspect of what we do, because we need to work to keep hope alive. As I have reflected on the experience of our students I have realized that none of these students are responsible for the situation they have inherited, yet they have to endure it and somehow find a way to live a fruitful life.

When I look back over the experience of the Palestinians during the past sixty years here there is nothing there that leads them to be optimistic that the future is going to be better. In listening to older people speak about their experience it becomes obvious that the net is tightening around them. The restrictions are becoming more onerous; the abuse at checkpoints and from the settlersis become more extreme.This leads me to wonder how to keep hope alive. The more I have reflected on that the more I have come to realize that hope is quite different to optimism. In speaking with graduates and many of our present students I have asked them what it is that leads them to hold onto hope. The answer has consistently been the knowledge that they are not alone, that there are people who are prepared to be… here on campus walking with them and working for them, and people outside Palestine who are standing in solidarity with them – people who believe in them. Because we are providing a context in which they know people care about them, because we bring pilgrims to visit and help them engage with our students, because we are providing opportunities for students to be educated, we are indeed a beacon of hope to these students.

Bethlehem University is then a place where Jesus’ message is being lived out. I am conscious that Bethlehem University is a Catholic University serving a predominantly Muslim population. To emphasise this I say in the Video “Beacon of Hope” we are unashamedly a Catholic University to which Muslims feel comfortable to come. At the heart of what Jesus came to do was captured in his claim; “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full!” In speaking to faculty, staff and students I keep coming back to this task of Jesus and argue that what Bethlehem University is seeking to do is carry on Jesus’ message by seeking to bring life in all its fullness to the young people entrusted to us. This is our challenge. In the midst of their daily life with all the hassles and restrictions, we are seeking to help students live life as fully as they possibly can. I elaborated on this point in an interview I did with John Cleary when I was in Australia last year. If you are interested you can access that interview here.There are many challenges in helping students live life to the full. One is providing the best possible programmes with the best teachers available. We recently opened our Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning where teachers are being helped to find ever better ways to engage with students in their subject areas. We are in the process of purchasing a nearby property to provide better… facilities for our students. This latter project is the biggest thing that has happened at Bethlehem University since it began in 1973. I have engaged Chris Faisandier, a long-time friend from New Zealand, to work with us on developing a comprehensive facilities master plan in conjunction with our strategic plan. He is living in Bethlehem for the next two months and has a challenging task ahead of him as he prepares us for the Board of Regents meeting in Rome in June where the options for the use of our properties will be discussed. Please keep us in your prayers as we move this along.

Responding to the needs of our students in this complex and restricted situation is challenging, but at the same time incredibly inspiring. I find myself humbled so many times when I engage with students and see the way they are coping and I am in admiration of them. Often I have wondered that if I was in their position whether I would respond so well!

It is with gratitude that I often have the chance to welcome pilgrims to Bethlehem University. They play a significant role in helping to keep hope alive because our students, faculty and staff see people from outside Palestine coming to engage with our students and find out what life is like for them. I am deeply grateful to those people who make the effort to come. Ironically, so many of them find engaging with our students the highlight of their visit to the Holy Land. There are only so many churches, holy sites, and ruins you can take in, but to engage with the young people who are living here presents a whole different picture.

On 1 October 2013 Bethlehem University begins the celebration of forty years of existence. On 1 October 1973 some 112 students walked through the gate to begin the first registered university in Palestine. Now with some 14,000 graduates and currently over 3000 students, Bethlehem University has established itself as an institution of quality higher education. We are proud of the contribution of so many of our graduates and look forward to continuing to serve the Palestinian people in new and ever better ways. Please pray for us as we reflect on our history and prepare for our future.… Tomorrow, on Easter Monday, again I have the opportunity to walk to Emmaus with a group from Jerusalem. I find it a chance to reflect on the extraordinary mystery we celebrate at this time, that the God who made this amazing universe became a tiny baby in Bethlehem, grew to be an adult in this region and then was murdered here in this city. I find we have domesticated this story so much and the… words describing this slip off my tongue so easily that I need space to really reflect on what I am saying – something virtually incredible! On the journey to Emmaus I get the chance to do what those first disciples did in wondering about what had happened and trying to see the practical implications for the tiny contribution I am making to bring Jesus’ words to life with the wonderful Palestinian students with whom I work. I am so conscious, however, that He is risen and, therefore, I can step out in faith into the unknown to deal with the everyday aspects of life here knowing that this is God’s work I am about. I will remember you as I wander and become even more aware of Jesus being with me on my journey.

I pray God’s blessing on you and a deep peace as you take in the meaning of this Easter season. Please keep us in your prayers as we seek to respond to God’s call. Thank you for your interest in and support for Bethlehem University.
Best wishes as the year continues to unfold for you.
Brother Peter Bray

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