Bethlehem University Three Years Later

by Brother Patrick White, F.S.C.
photos: CNEWA files

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Friday, Oct. 5, 1990, 12:15 p.m.: I will not forget it. We gathered in Bethlehem University chapel for Mass. The midday sun filtered through the stained glass windows above the vaulted walls of the nave, its warm rays dancing on our faces. The ethereal atmosphere spread a sense of unreality over the occasion. The autumn light also caught the pale gold, pastel browns and pinks of the children’s faces painted around the walls of the large chapel. Thirty years ago, they say, the artist attempted to depict young Christian martyrs from all the countries and continents of the world.

He had used the faces of Christian Palestinian children of Bethlehem as models. Three years ago, before the closure of Bethlehem University by order of the Israeli military, I used to look at those faces. Now, with closer scrutiny, even those faces painted as Chinese and Ugandans betrayed the open features of Arab Palestinians.

It felt strange for Bethlehem University to be open again. Here we were, students and a small group of Palestinian and expatriate lay teachers, sisters and brothers celebrating a liturgy together on the carpeted sanctuary during the traditional Muslim prayer hour on a Friday. This same sense may well have affected our Muslim staff and students who were praying in their local mosques.

Father Peter, our American Jesuit priest on the staff, celebrated the Mass in Arabic. How often I paced the empty corridors of the university and stood in the silent chapel through three long winters, the place cold, gray, damp and muted. Even in summertime the massive walls seemed cold.

Two of the three years, I mused, we did serve our students in off-campus programs, teaching in hidden places – hotel basements, empty houses, church halls – secretly and in small huddled groups. Nearly 3,000 students graduated during the intifada, as the Arab uprising is known. Yet I could never reconcile myself to empty classrooms, idle doors ajar, bare desks, shrouded shapes in computer rooms, silent anger at the injustice of it all. It was well-captured in the intensity of Professor Maurice Harmon’s verse. Perhaps only an Irishman could feel for Palestinians the way he does:

These muted halls accuse.
These shuttered rooms proclaim a people’s shame.
Learning denied, that right refused.

The soprano tones of the student Palestinian Rosary Sisters singing in front of me drew my attention back to the Mass. Christian Palestinian hymns have a lilt and lovely rhythm all their own. The once empty chambered space now filled with their youthful voices.

Outside the chapel, easy laughter and the murmured conversations of students mingled with the liturgy within. I pictured the young people pacing down the flights of steps to the new Social and Cultural Centre, surprised at its vastness and variety. We fought inflation and obstruction from the military authorities for 12 years before the open air theater, the sports hall, the cafeteria and music and art rooms could be made available to them.

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