Br Peter Bray fsc, a De La Salle Brother originally from Taranaki, was the vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University until the end of last year. Bethlehem University is a Catholic university located in the city of Bethlehem, in the West Bank; it is the first higher education institution founded in the occupied Palestinian territories. During his tenure, Br Peter has written frequent letters to Catholic organisations in New Zealand with updates about the university, the students and graduates, and the challenges. Here is his final letter as vice-chancellor, written 22 December 2023.
Greetings as we again prepare for the most important day of the year for this little town of Bethlehem even in the midst of the war in Gaza and the attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank! I hope and pray this finds you safe and well and making your own preparations to remember Christmas.
The celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Bethlehem University at the beginning of October 2023, was a major event for us and we were so pleased with the gatherings we had. The dedication of the new Georgette Salameh Visitors and Fitness Centre was the highlight of the celebrations. The gathering of some of the 20,000 graduates was a very affirming experience. Those who came were so positive about their memories of being here at Bethlehem University. We are very proud of them and it is satisfying to come across graduates in all sorts of situations in various parts of the world who really treasure the experience they had here at Bethlehem University.
I take comfort from such engagements because I think it indicates to me that we are doing something worthwhile here and that is what keeps hope alive! So many of these graduates are contributing back to the Palestinian society since those first 112 students walked onto the campus to begin Bethlehem University on 1 October 1973.
The calendar year that is ending has been a disrupted one. With the attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank a regular occurrence, it meant that when someone was killed in the Bethlehem Governate or a major incident in the West Bank, there was a strike in protest, which meant sometimes we would go several weeks without a full week of classes. The current semester has been even further disrupted because of the war in Gaza and the slaughter of almost 20,000 Palestinians there, 70 per cent of whom were women and children, and over 51,000 injured. This has been a traumatic time for so many people here because many students, faculty, and staff have relatives and friends in Gaza. Hearing about what is happening there and not being able to communicate with their relatives and friends is making it very difficult for them.
The war in Gaza has put extra pressure on the organisation of the University. The Israelis closed all the checkpoints around Bethlehem when the war began and so the 40 per cent of the students from Jerusalem as well as students from Hebron and surrounding villages have not been able to get to campus. This led us very early on to move teaching online, with all the complications resulting from such a sudden decision.
The easy availability and access students have to Al has become a challenge for faculty! There are moves afoot to bring Bethlehem students and those around Bethlehem who can get to campus to attend and have a hybrid arrangement with those who are unable to come. That is being explored for the new semester.
The tragedy of the situation here is that the first casualty of the war is truth! It is very difficult to find out what is actually happening in detail and the means of finding out is severely restricted. However, we do know that the middle and southern sections of Gaza are hosting almost two million internally displaced people. In addition, the health authorities recently documented 360,000 cases of infectious diseases in shelters, including diarrhoea, influenza, meningitis, hygiene-related conditions such as lice, and 1,500 cases of intestinal disease are reported daily due to food shortages. There are around 600 people sheltering in the Catholic Holy Family Parish church and school in Gaza. On 16 December, two Christian women, Nahida Anton and her daughter Samar Anton, were walking in the compound when Nahida was shot by a sniper. When Samar went to assist her mother, she too was shot. Both died while others were wounded. In addition, an Israeli tank fired a rocket at the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Teresa and severely damaged the building, thus displacing 54 disabled people who were housed there.
The focus of attention is on Gaza, but it needs to be remembered that the military and settlers are taking advantage of that focus to expand their control of the West Bank. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza on 7 October, there have been almost 280 Palestinians, including some 70 children, who have been killed on the West Bank while almost 3,500 Palestinians have been injured by Israeli forces and settlers. In addition, over 4,500 Palestinians have been arrested since 7 October.
It is against such a backdrop that Bethlehem University is seeking to operate. There is a pervading uncertainty about what the future holds for Palestinians in the West Banks as well as Gaza, because it is impossible to go back to how things were on 6 October! What the alternative will be is far from clear.
Given that backdrop, it is difficult to welcome the Christ child with joy! As a result, all festivities in Bethlehem have been cancelled and our remembering Christmas on campus is very subdued. Instead of the festive lighting of the Christmas tree, we had a sombre remembrance of the children who have been killed in Gaza. There were four panels on the tree with some 5,000 names of the children who are known to have died. We also had a different Christmas scene in the Chapel of the Divine Child reflecting this reality.
As we remember the birth of Jesus here in Bethlehem I am reminded yet again that what we are remembering is the birth of the Prince of Peace! It is far from a place of peace at present. Yet my engagement with Palestinians here at Bethlehem University and their response to what is offered, shows me that what we are doing is worthwhile and that is the source of hope! In the midst of the anxiety and fear I see God’s Spirit at work. In the resistance among the people holed up in Gaza, I see God’s Spirit at work. In the determination of people here to carry out our mission to serve the young people entrusted to us, I see God’s Spirit at work. We are seeking to respond to that Spirit and create here an environment where people can move towards living life to the full, despite the occupation, the oppression, the restrictions, and the challenges they face. To live life to the full was central to Jesus’ message and I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to help make that possible, here where Jesus was born!
My time as Vice Chancellor ends on 13 December 2023. These fifteen years have been a blessed and deeply enriching time for me and for that I am deeply grateful. So, from this little town of Bethlehem, for the last time, I send you Christmas greetings and best wishes as you remember the birth of Jesus and hopefully experience a growing sense of peace in your own life. Please keep us in your prayers!
Best wishes and thanks for your interest in and support of our mission here over these past fifteen years.
Br Peter Bray, FSC, EdD
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand supporting Holy Land humanitarian crisis
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand has been working tirelessly with our partners Caritas Jerusalem and Bethlehem University to support the thousands of people in need during the ongoing crisis in the Holy Land.
From the generous donations of many New Zealanders, through our partners we’ve been able to deliver vital supplies to more than 100,000 people – including blankets, mats, and mattresses for 600 families as well as food and other emergency supplies. The situation for our partners is extremely dangerous, and though we continue to help them it is often unsafe for them to operate amid the warzone.
Caritas Jerusalem affirmed their ‘dedication to serving people of all faiths in the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ and their ‘commitment to fostering hope, compassion, and peace’ in a statement (see caritas.org.nz).
In solidarity with our partners, and all people of the Holy Land, we have been advocating for a ceasefire to protect civilians, as well as for further humanitarian aid. We are committed to the path of peace, and in December we wrote to Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Foreign Minister Winston Peters urging them to use all means at their disposal to call for an immediate ceasefire. We also called for the New Zealand Government to vote in favour of a resolution for ceasefire at the United Nations General Assembly, which the Government did.
Over the Christmas period, we joined with our brother and sister Caritas agencies around the world in signing onto the #CeasefireNOW! Petition. It has been signed by over one million people worldwide, including Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organisations.
As the crisis continues, we remain in solidarity with all people in the Holy Land. Each day at noon our staff join in saying the Rosary to pray for peace, justice, and an end to suffering, and we have led international Caritas staff in weekly prayer for the Caritas Oceania Moana Breeze.
We are deeply grateful to all those who have donated to our humanitarian efforts. The human cost to this conflict has been tragic, with thousands of casualties in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including hundreds of children. Your ongoing support provides hope and relief to those in need through the work we do with our partners. Please visit caritas.org.nzfor more information.