Peace in Bethlehem?

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — “Peace on earth” is far from the reality this Christmas in the town of Christ's birth.

The violence and mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians that has marked the recent history of the Holy Land have formed daily life in Bethlehem, placing strains on the simplest activities such as trade, travel and education.

Yet for the past 30 years a university sponsored by the Vatican and run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Bethlehem has been a witness to hope and the possibility of interfaith cooperation.

Located a half-mile from the traditional site of Christ's birth at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem University enrolls more than 2,000 Palestinian students, both Christians and Muslims, and serves as one of the few vehicles for advancement in an area of few opportunities.

About 67% of the students are Muslim, a fact that reflects the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land. Most of the other university students are either Orthodox Christians or Eastern Catholics. The school confers degrees that are recognized throughout the Arab nations and in the United States.

A dozen brothers staff the university, with Brother Vincent Malham as president. The Catholic identity of the school also is evidenced by the daily Mass celebrated on campus and by the courses in religion and theology.

For the people of Bethlehem, Christmas is a time of contrasts, as even the popular carol about the town suggests. Outsiders think of the still and silent streets of the song, while residents tend to focus on the “hopes and fears of all the years” that compose their daily lives.

“Nowadays, if you ask people in Bethlehem how they feel during the Christmas season, they will tell you that the message of peace is not reverberating in the hills over here anymore and that they are excluded from the good will among nations,” said George Sahhar, a spokesman for the university. “They wonder when it will all end so that they will feel the freedom, joy and promise of Christmas.”

“The most important thing that lets us be patient in this bad situation that we live in is that this is the place where Jesus was born,” said Jane Abu Mohor, a Christian 19-year-old accounting student. “For sure, he will implement justice and peace that we all dream of in this city and this country.”

Security Concerns

Bethlehem is officially a Palestinian town, with a Catholic Palestinian mayor who serves on the board of the university, but Israeli soldiers man checkpoints around the town, effectively controlling who enters and leaves.

“It is difficult for the people, because their movements are controlled so closely and it can take very long to get in and out of Bethlehem,” said De La Salle Brother Jerome Sullivan, who recently returned to the United States after serving for six years as vice president for development at the university. “We have to close the school sporadically because of curfews or travel restrictions.”

Bethlehem University has never finished a school year on schedule, he said, and it was forced to close its doors for three years in the 1980s during intense hostilities. Late last month, the town's mayor, Hanna Nasser, issued “An Appeal from Bethlehem,” in which he condemned the Israeli government's plan to seize 44 parcels of land in the town and build a wall “under the pretext of military purposes.”

“As tourism constitutes 65% of our citizens’ revenue, the construction of this wall will … choke our town and deliver a fatal blow to its economy,” he wrote.

In a recent statement, Pope John Paul II urged the Israelis not to construct a proposed security barrier along hundreds of miles in the area, stating that the Holy Land needs to build bridges between the peoples instead.

The Israeli government says a barrier needed to defend its citizens from terrorist plots and suicide bombers.

In April 2002 Bethlehem was the epicenter of Holy Land hostilities when armed Palestinians took refuge from Israeli soldiers in the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity. The standoff lasted more than a month, with Franciscans who staff the church marking the place of Christ's birth involved in the negotiations by which the Palestinians left the sanctuary.

Israeli soldiers scaled the walls and occupied the university for the first few days of the siege, Brother Sullivan said.

“The brothers were under house arrest, and of course the university was closed down,” he recalled. “The university is on the highest hill in Bethlehem, so they used the campus as a base of operation, and soldiers would come off duty and sleep in the hallways. The whole town was under curfew imposed by the soldiers. No one could leave their homes. Every few days they would declare that people could go out and shop and do whatever they had to do for a few hours.”

Recalling the “nightmare” of the incident, Liviana Al Teet said she was in high school at the time, studying for exams to get into the university.

“We did not go to school for 40 days,” said Al Teet, a 19-year-old Christian marketing student. “It was really hard to study at that time and to see the holy place where Jesus Christ was born under fire.”


The university's 30th anniversary celebrations in October provided a respite for faculty, staff and students. Anniversary events included an academic convocation in which Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, who was the university's first president, was awarded an honorary degree. A campuswide celebration also was held with music, sporting events, games and a picnic for staff, students and alumni.

“It was a wonderful day, full of joy and happiness,” Abu Mohor said.

“It was a really great break, and we had a lot of fun, because you know we are besieged from everywhere and we cannot go to Jerusalem without permission,” Al Teet said.

“We have good relations between Muslims and Christians because all of us are brothers and sisters from the same country and in the same university,” Abu Mohor said. “It is a relationship of respect no matter what the religion of the person.”

Both students plan to work in the area after graduation, though Al Teet hopes to pursue advanced studies in the United States first.

The university officially does not take sides in the area's conflicts, but the sentiment among the brothers and faculty members strongly favors the Palestinians, Brother Sullivan said.

Pope Paul VI requested the formation of a university at the site of a former Christian Brothers high school specifically to address the needs of young Palestinians of any faith, he noted.

Patriarch Sabbah, who was born in Nazareth, also expresses solidarity with Palestinians in his public addresses while calling for peaceful means to resolve differences. In a communication last Christmas, he asked “that the message of the angels given to humankind from our land will be also a message to us and transform us into peacemakers.”

Brother Neil Kieffe, who teaches information technology at the university, called the survival of the university during the past 30 years “a miracle.”

“The same God that has brought the university through its first 30 years and tremendous difficulties and hardships will not abandon it now,” he said. “The need to develop Palestinian leadership is greater than ever with the possibility of there being a Palestinian state in a few years’ time.”

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.