Palestinian Christians treated like second class citizens by Jewish state

Very few people understand the reality of life under Israeli occupation. Father Peter Bray, the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University, has regularly written missives about what it really means. This is his Easter message:

Easter Sunday 8 April 2012

Greetings from this holy city of Jerusalem where again I have had the opportunity to gather with others to reflect on the Easter mystery. It is indeed a privilege and an inspiration to walk the streets of the Old City and to reflect on what happened here some 2000 years ago.

I have had the opportunity to gather with locals as well as many pilgrims to reflect and pray. To see the international nature of the gatherings reminds me of how far what Jesus began here has travelled. The message of God’s love and of the need for peace and justice has been heard in the farthest ends of the earth. However, it is distressing for me to realize that some of the people with whom I work at Bethlehem University, and many others in that city, cannot join me in these ceremonies. They live some seven kilometres away but because they are Palestinian Christians they could not get permission to come into the Old City to be part of the ceremonies. In spite of the fact that many of these families trace their origins back to the earliest Christians, they cannot easily come to worship in the places where their ancestors worshipped down through the centuries.

This situation brings to mind the article by Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the USA. He claimed in the March 12 Wall Street Journal article, “Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians,” that Israel is providing a supportive environment for Christians and that the Christians are leaving the Holy Land because of the pressure from Muslims. This contradicts what Christians are saying and experiencing.…  For more information on this you might like to see the link.

The Palestinian Christians along with Palestinian Muslims are treated by the Israelis as Palestinians. Thus the Palestinian Christians are restricted in all sorts of ways because they are Palestinian. If they live behind the Wall they need special permission to go into Jerusalem. Israel claims it gives thousands of permits to Christians for special feast like Christmas and Easter. However, of the estimated 50,000 Christians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories only about 3000 get these special permits, but this is arbitrary. In speaking recently with one member of staff at Bethlehem University I discovered that over the past two years she received permission to go into Jerusalem on two of the four times she applied. Her three daughters had also applied and received permission on two occasions. However, there was never an occasion when they were able to go and worship as a family, as there was always someone without permission.

Even those Christians with permits cannot always get through. On Palm Sunday groups of people trying to get to Jerusalem for the procession coming from Ramallah, Nablus, Taybeh and elsewhere in the West Bank spent over two hours at the checkpoints and so gave up and returned home because they would have missed the procession anyhow.

This restriction on travel has an impact in many ways. I was speaking with one of our second year student before Christmas and he mentioned he had never set eyes on the sea or been to Galilee because he couldn’t get permission to go through the Wall. Many of our Christian students from Bethlehem have never been to the Galilee to see Nazareth or the Sea of Galilee or Mount of Beatitudes etc. We have tried all sorts of ways to get visits there but have never been able to get permission for them. So I can go and can take visitors to all these holy places, but people whose ancestry goes back to the early Christians cannot.

Pressure on Christians who occupy land the Israelis want is intense. Israel has systematically put pressure on Palestinians who possess land that Israelis wants. Daoud Nasser, for example, is on his family land just near Bethlehem. He has had to fight the Israeli government and military in the Israeli High Court to retain his land, even though it has been clear from the beginning that he has the documentation to show that it is his ancestral land. This was a very costly exercise. When the government and military could not win in the court they tried restriction. They would not allow any water, electricity, services, building permits and so on for the property. In addition, neighbouring settlers harassed him and his family in an effort to force them off the land. They have not succeeded. Daoud has founded the “Tent of Nations” where he seeks to educate people to what is happening and talks about his approach. He refuses to regard the soldiers, settlers or government as his enemy and acts accordingly. I have been to the site a number of times and I am always impressed with the determination to resist non-violently but to act in a Christian way. This confounds the Israelis at times but is a continual challenge for Daoud to live this approach. So far he has been able to survive through some ingenious moves, but it is a constant strain for him and his family. Many people are not prepared to go to these lengths so give up and leave.

The constant pressure on Christians is evident in restrictions, abuse at checkpoints, economic pressure, unemployment, unpredictable invasion of homes by Israeli military, insecurity and being in an open air prison. All these lead many of them to seek an alternative. So to say Israel is providing a supportive environment for Christians is contradicted by the evidence of what people have to endure.

It is in the midst of this situation that Bethlehem University continues to reach out to Palestinians and particularly Palestinian Christians. In a country where less than 2% are Christian, Bethlehem University has a student population where some 30% are Christian. We are ever looking for better ways to reach out and be supportive of them. There are many challenges facing us in doing this, but the resilience of the students is amazing and inspiring and makes the efforts involved so worthwhile. During the recent visit to Bethlehem University by Brother Alvaro, the Superior General of the Brothers, I felt so proud as I watched and listened to our students engage with him and those with him in a very confident, articulate and informed way.

For almost forty years Bethlehem University has been reaching out to provide university education. Over the past year or so I have been working with people to explore additional ways Bethlehem University could more effectively respond to the needs of the Palestinian people. We have come up with several options and at present we are in negotiations to purchase a property a few hundred metres from our present campus, which is about a third the size of it. To gain this will provide Bethlehem University with an excellent base from which to develop what is needed for the next twenty years. However, finding around $19 million to purchase, renovate, landscape and set up the new programmes is a big ask in the current international economic climate. So please keep us in your prayers that many people will be generous enough to enable us to more adequately respond to the needs of the Palestinian people.

Part of this challenge, and one of the most difficult aspect, is to keep hope alive in the midst of all that people face. Bethlehem University over the years has proved to be a beacon of hope for our students and we continue to reach out to find ever better ways to keep hope alive. This hope is not so much some vague idea that things will be better. Rather at this time of Easter it is good to reflect on Jesus’ victory over death. Against this backdrop our hope is that there is a victorious meaning to what is happening, no matter what the outcome. It its this type of hope that enables us to live our lives in the midst of oppression. This hope gives us the courageous to face whatever comes with a confidence that arises from knowing that we continually live in the presence of our loving God.

It has been a great thrill for me to have a number of visitors from Australia and New Zealand pass through the Holy Land and visit Bethlehem University. For so many of them engaging with our students is the highlight of their visit to the Holy Land. It is one thing to visit churches and holy sites, to see ruins etc., but to engage with students who live in this land and whose roots go back so far is something special. So if you are intending to come to the Holy Land make sure you ask the travel agent or tour organizer to put Bethlehem University on the itinerary! I would love to welcome you on campus and have you engage with some of our students. In May it will be a great please for me to welcome to campus Bishop Owen Dolan from Palmerston North in New Zealand. He follows in the footsteps of his namesake Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, who was with us recently on the same day we had Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited us. However, Bishop Dolan will be given even more favoured treatment in coming from New Zealand!

Tomorrow I walk to Emmaus with a group from Jerusalem. It will again be an opportunity to walk the journey the disciples walked and reflect on what happened in Jerusalem. I will walk and reflect on what happened to Jesus, but also on what is happening to the Palestinian people who would love to walk with me but cannot because they cannot get permission to come through the Wall.…  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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