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Bethlehem University educates for peace in Palestine

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Liza George Sahhar, Fahed Nofal, Brother Peter Bray, and Bayan Mohammad Awadallah at Bethlehem University in Bethlehem, Palestine. Photo: Supplied.

Amid a surge of violence in Palestine, the only Catholic university in the birthplace of Christ is a refuge where the ordinary rituals of life become a powerful form of passive resistance.

On 26 February, one Palestinian man was killed, more than 100 others injured and dozens of homes and cars set alight in the latest incident near the West Bank city of Nablus, the BBC reported.

It followed the killings of two Israeli brothers from a nearby settlement days prior.

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It’s the latest in an uptick in atrocities committed on both sides, with the reported death toll in 2023 already at 60 Palestinians and 14 Israelis.

The New Zealand-born vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, Br Peter Bray FSC, says the university is an oasis of calm where a non-violent response to oppression is promoted.

The first registered university founded in the West Bank is the only Catholic one in the Holy Land.

“I think it’s very easy for Palestinians to drift into violence, hatred and revenge and we as a Catholic university are promoting a non-violent response,” Br Bray told The Catholic Weekly.

“By doing the ordinary things of life like coming to class, that’s a form of resistance to what I think is the ultimate aim of the Zionists, which is to drive all of the Palestinians out of the land.”

Less than one percent of Palestinians are Christians but at the university about 20 per cent of students are Christian and the rest mostly Muslim.

Br Bray says the friendly engagement between the groups is one of the significant contributions the university makes to Palestine.

The university has more than 3,000 students and five faculties as well as an institute of hotel management and tourism and a “business incubator” to help create jobs.

ACU Provost Professor Meg Stuart, Br Peter Bray FSC, and ACU Vice-Chancellor Zlatko Skrbis. Photo: Supplied

On 17 February, the Australian Catholic University awarded Br Bray an honorary doctorate.

ACU vice-chancellor and President Zlatko Skrbis praised his inspirational approach to leadership.

“I’m happy to receive it because it shows them at Bethlehem that people on the other side of the world remember them,” Br Bray said.

It’s not been easy to maintain continuity in teaching and learning in recent years.

A number of students who have to pass Israeli settlements to get to campus have sometimes been so frightened that they haven’t made it to class.

“And when something happens, like when nine people were killed in the Jenin refugee camp, the whole place went into lockdown; this semester so far there’s only been one week where there were five days of classes,” Br Bray explained.

“But listening to former staff and graduates I think we’re doing a fairly good job of creating a little oasis of peace where they know they are safe, they’re not going to be arrested or have a gun put in their face, or anything like that.”

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