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Catholic education in Israeli-occupied Palestine is a liberating dynamic

HONG KONG (SE): “Most people I meet overseas imagine Palestine as a bombed out wreck,” De La Salle Brother Peter Bray, the vice chancellor of the only Catholic university in the occupied state of Palestine, told the Sunday Examiner during a stopover in Hong Kong in February this year.

“But nothing could be further from the truth,” the New Zealand brother continued. “It is a beautiful city, with a functioning government and public service, as well as a functional infrastructure.”

The vice chancellor of Bethlehem University in the Holy Land said that living in an occupied land like Palestine is extremely difficult and has extra challenges for a Christian.

“But they can take away land and freedom,” he noted, “but they cannot take away education.”

Brother Peter explained that around 70 per cent of the enrollment of about 3,000 at the university is Muslim, with the remaining 30 per cent Christian, even though only about two per cent of the total population is Christian.

“We have a staff of about 280, including nine brothers, some sisters and priests, but the vast majority is local,” he explained, adding that about half the courses are taught in English and the other half in Arabic.

“People overseas tend to see much of the tension as a Muslim-Christian thing,” he commented, “but in actual fact they get on quite well together. The problem that Christians face is lack of employment opportunity, as they find themselves on the bottom of the job preference list.”

He added, “This forces them to leave and go abroad if they get the opportunity. They want to stay, but they have to eat.”

However, Brother Peter is convinced that education is the key to building better relationships and breaking down discrimination.

“All students on campus are required to do religious studies together,” he explained. “This way they get to know each other by doing things together, and they go back to their communities with a different perspective.”

He said that this differs from local high schools, which separate Christians and Muslims for religious education. “Bethlehem used to be a predominately Christian city,” he explained, “but now it is Muslim.”

Brother Peter says that Israel promotes the security issue to the international media, but in all of his 10 years in Palestine, he said that he has never felt physically threatened wherever he has gone.

Nevertheless, he pointed out that the infamous wall and the ever-present Israeli Defence Force, which he described as being an insidious group, is spiritually and psychologically oppressive.

“They act in a whimsical manner,” he commented. “One of our students was detained by the Israeli forces inside Palestine and then abducted into Israel.”

While he noted that this is a prime example of the military breaking the law, the case also highlighted a sign of hope, as with the help of Israeli lawyers, who were prepared to go to court for her, she was eventually freed.

“But still the oppression goes on,” Brother Peter explained. “There is the interminable and unpredictable waiting. People have to cross into Israel to work, but when they go to get the bus they never know what will happen.”

He explained that sometimes there is no problem, but you may be put out in the sun for hours to wait, strip searched or detained for questioning for unknown periods. “This is an oppressive tactic on people’s psyche,” he explained.

He said that the military are also a demeaning presence in the territory. “They are mostly young bucks, not well trained in human relations. They sneer at people and belittle them publicly and humiliate men in front of their children. I wonder what this does to the psyche of a proud Muslim father,” he reflected.

Brother Peter has worked in his native New Zealand, Australia and the United States of America, but reflected that he has never been in a place where Catholic education is needed as much as it is in Palestine.

“It is so obvious that what we are doing is worthwhile in Catholic education,” he noted. “Palestine needs help in nation-building. We run courses in international cooperation and development. People need to be able to think about partnership in ways other than the old paternalistic model.”

There are also masters degrees in government administration, law and health, but he says that one of the most important areas in their programme is community partnership.

“Some of these are run off campus,” he explained, “in villages and are especially important in getting women involved in community affairs and working on democratic processes, agitating for rights and discerning what is needed.”

He added that they also have a fair trade course and nursing programmes, both run in villages.

“I had no idea of the impact this could make on breaking old traditions when we started,” he admitted, “but education really gives young people a power and authority of their own.”

He said it is not just the young people who change and move forward, but the whole village.

Brother Peter explained, “Students challenge the traditional ways from the inside, because they belong in those communities, and with education they do it with their own authority.”

He said that he sees the university as an oasis of peace in the middle of conflict and part of the important role of promoting national healing in a territory thwart with scars, violence and prejudice.

On a personal level he said that he fears that the situation could get to him in the same way as he has witnessed some local people getting swamped.

“I fear that I will come to see the current structure as normal,” he reflected. “There is a real sense of disempowerment because of Israeli oppression.”

He commented that keeping hope alive is an all important challenge. “The Wall is the great sign of oppression,” he explained. “Every Friday a group of us go to The Wall, walk up and down and pray the rosary. We think of the Israelites walking round and round the walls of Jericho and blowing their trumpets until the walls came tumbling down.”

Brother Peter related that the Israeli soldiers get upset about what they are doing, but so far, they have been at it for five years.

Bethlehem University in the Holy Land was set up in 1973 as a joint project between the De La Salle Brothers and the Vatican.

“The Knights of Malta have been a tremendous support, bringing international expertise and their political and diplomatic skills and clout into play in achieving this, especially since it was begun in the middle of a war,” Brother Peter explained.

However, he said that more international support is needed. “It is a pity that international pilgrims coming to Bethlehem only stay for such a short time,” he said.

Although he noted that the Israelis make it difficult to stay overnight, a pilgrimage is meant to be a time of sacrifice, not just a glorified five-star holiday.

“They would have so much to offer to our students,” he noted, “and we can host them at the university where they can meet face to face and engage with local, young people. It would be the highlight of the trip, both for them and the local students.”

He said that we need this type of contact in order to counter balance the propaganda of Israel that predominates in forming the international image.

But is peace just a dream? “Sometimes it seems that way,” Brother Peter admits. “But we have to begin where we are and I believe that we can contribute to creating a pool of people that can bring about a new Palestine.”