Life in Bethlehem is anything but blessed

Back in July, I visited the occupied city of Bethlehem and spent time at the world-renowned university there.

Now, Br Peter Bray,Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University (and from New Zealand),… has sent out an end of year missive outlining the reality of life in an occupied city. It may have a holy history, but in 2009 life for Palestinians there is still controlled by the Israeli army:

Greetings as we move towards the celebration of Christmas in this holy place.

I greet you after being here just over a year. I find it difficult to believe that the time has passed so quickly. I have said to many people when I reflect back that I have been so involved in such a different life that I have never been bored at any stage of this past year.

I consider myself to be so blessed to have the opportunity to be here and engaged with these wonderful young people. They are so inspiring and have such a zest for life in the midst of the restrictions and challenges they face on a daily basis.
In a recent interview I was asked how what we are doing here at Bethlehem University connects with what St De La Salle did in France some three hundred years ago. My response was that De La Salle was committed to work for the young people of his day to give them a sense of hope and a purpose in their lives. I see a close connection in what we are doing here. One of the key elements of what we are doing is being a beacon of hope for these young people who in so many ways find the oppression and restrictions disempowering them. To stand in solidarity with them and walk with them is a great demonstration that we have hope and faith in them.
Because of the restrictions and oppression of this occupation it is so easy for these people to drift into a position of thinking they are forgotten and abandoned. That is why it is so important for us to stand together with them and show that they are not abandoned or forgotten. I think being here and encouraging others to come and visit us, shows these young people that there are people who care about them and are willing to tell their story.

There have been numerous occasions when I have walked with students who have felt overwhelmed by their conditions and yet come back to Bethlehem University because it gives them life and hope. Students know that when they step onto campus that they are safe and cared for. Thus we are creating an oasis of peace for them which so many of them treasure because so much of their life lacks that.
The journey through this year has brought me to a much deeper understanding of myself because I have had to confront so many of my own limitations and prejudices and find ways to be here in a culture which is so different to what I have been used to. It has been a humbling experience but has also led me to be very conscious of the comment De La Salle made at the end of his life when reflecting on his life’s work: “Lord, the work is yours!” I have become so aware how I might do the planting or watering, but it is God who gives the increase.

I have been so fortunate to be in the brothers’ community here at Bethlehem University. There is a Palestinian brother here and me from New Zealand. The other seven brothers are all from various places in the United States. There is an extraordinary spirit in the community and I find it a great support and a source of life and companionship. I am having a hard time trying to educate them and they are still writing funny and leaving letters out of words, but I will keep trying!

In the time I have been here the political situation has worsened significantly. I sense the noose is tightening around the neck of the Palestinian people and the restrictions are become more intense. Just recently the father of a former Executive Vice President died and people who had worked for many years with the Vice President wanted to go to the funeral to show their respect for him. However, the funeral was in East Jerusalem, some seven or so kilometres away, and they could not get a permit to go. For so many of them Bethlehem has become a prison out of which they can rarely move. Some have not been into Jerusalem for several years.

I was at a meeting recently where eight of us from various Palestinian Universities met with the deputy Secretary of State of the USA, the person immediately below Hilary Clinton. One of our biggest needs is to get qualified faculty, particularly getting people with doctorates to come through the wall. His response was to urge us to find ways to collaborate with Israeli Universities to improve what we do. The Palestinian National Authority has a boycott of Israeli Universities in place because the whole issue of academic freedom is a myth when Palestinian faculty cannot travel to work with others in their field. Al Quds University admitted that for fifteen years they had rejected the call and tired to work with Israeli Universities. However, after fifteen years they had come to the conclusion it was a big mistake because of the way they have been abused and taken advantage of while being restricted in all sorts of ways that disadvantaged them. They have now joined the boycott and are speaking strongly about the need for the occupation to end and for Palestinian Universities to have the freedom to be Universities!

It has been a real eye-opener for me and when I challenged the deputy about the injustice of the system that is imposed on us he had no answer but encouraged us to work within the restrictions. My call was not to find ways to live with the restrictions but to remove them! I’m loosing faith in the Obama promise as I see the Israeli government playing with the USA and thumbing its nose at the rest of the world.

I don’t know how closely you have followed the case of the Bethlehem University students Berlanty Azzam, a 21 year old girl from Gaza who was at Bethlehem University from 2005 after getting permission to cross Israel in 2005 into the West Bank. She decided to stay and has studied at Bethlehem University for almost four years. She was within weeks of graduating when she was stopped at an Israeli military checkpoint in Palestinian. There she was detained, blindfolded, handcuffed and deported back to Gaza. We worked with a group of human rights lawyers in Israeli (Gisha) to take the Military to court in an effort to bring Berlanty back to Bethlehem so she could finish her study. In spite of international pressure which has amazed us, the Israeli military were not prepared to give an inch and the High Court refused her permission to return. It is amazingly unjust when both the military and the High Court acknowledge that she is not a security risk. I was at the court hearing and had the chance to talk at some length with her about her treatment by the Israeli military. She had permission to be out of Gaza from 9.00am until 8.00pm to attend the hearing. When the decision was handed down I spoke to her by phone and she was very disappointed but amazingly resilient. She was determined that this set-back was not going to destroy her future. I so admired her spirit and the extraordinary way she responded to the restrictions on her. It is being involved with such young people that is truly inspiring.
Br Jack has attempted to keep people aware of the issue and asked for support for Berlanty. There has been an overwhelming response from all parts of the globe. I am particularly pleased with the responses of people from around the world who have written to members of Parliament, to the Israeli embassy, to Israeli ministers etc protesting the injustice of how Berlanty has been treated. Thank you if you have taken up Berlanty’s cause and helped put pressure on the Israeli military. If you have not been aware of her case there is a section of Bethlehem University website devoted to the material where you could catch up on what has happened. (
I have told a number of people that last weekend I really felt like a Palestinian! On two occasions I was refused entry through a checkpoint. The young soldiers refused to accept my documents to allow me to pass. Despite trying to argue with them about the validity of what I had they would not let me pass. In the end they had the guns! On both occasions I had to find another way around but it made me very aware of what the Palestinians endure constantly.
During my wanderings this year a number of people expressed a desire to support Bethlehem University financially. I am very grateful to all those people who have contributed to help Bethlehem University. We are faced with significant financial difficulties and any support is greatly appreciated. I am very conscious of the fragile nature of the finances at Bethlehem University and have never worked in an organization where 69% of the operating budget comes from fund raising! So thank you for your ongoing support.

During the course of this year I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people who have been particularly supportive of what we are doing at Bethlehem University. I have attached some photographs which may be of interest. We had Rosalyn Carter here earlier in the year and I walked with her along part of the Abraham Path which we, along with several other groups, are involved in developing. She is an amazing person. I hope to get her and her husband (Jimmy, I think his name is!) back to Bethlehem University when they are across for one of their frequent visits to the area.

I also had the chance, when I was in Ireland, to have some time with the President of Ireland, Dr Mary McAleese, another remarkable woman. She has offered to come to Bethlehem University when she visits the area. When she finishes as President in two years time she and her husband are going to do voluntary work in various parts of the world. What she committed herself to do was to come to Bethlehem University and spend some time here working with faculty, staff and students. She is a lawyer and very keen on finding ways for people to be empowered and find resolution to issues that divide. It will be wonderful when she can bring her expertise and her standing to Bethlehem University.
You may also recognise the man in white! He was also very supportive and made special mention of Bethlehem University during his visit to this area.

It is really special to celebrate Christmas in this place where the whole Christian era all began. I still have to pinch myself to realise that I am here where Mary and Joseph walked these hills and where Jesus was born. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ here at Bethlehem University. We have a special celebration of midnight mass with the Papal Nuncio leading the celebration. He is our chancellor and is wonderfully supportive of what we are doing. That is followed by a reception for all who come along. Last year after it was all over and the place had been cleaned and set right, about 3.30am on Christmas morning, one of the other brothers and I walked down to the grotto in the Church of the Nativity. I still have amazing memories of being down there in the grotto on Christmas morning and taking in what we were celebrating. If all goes well I will do the same again this Christmas.

Be assured that as we celebrate Christmas in this holy place that I will remember in a special way all of the people who support Bethlehem University in all sorts of special ways, through prayer, standing in solidarity with us and then financially. We are deeply grateful for whatever way you can find to support us. We step out in faith and believe that God is guiding us in what we are doing for these wonderful young people.

Please continue to keep us in your prayers.
With special Christmas blessings
Br Peter Bray