Last September, Caritas programmes Officer Anna Robertson went with board chairMark Richards to show our ongoing solidarity with the most vulnerable Palestinians through our partnership with Caritas Jerusalem and Bethlehem University.
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, with funding from the New Zealand Aid Programme, is currently supporting Caritas Jerusalem in delivering healthcare in the West Bank and Gaza where it can be difficult to get medical attention due to poverty, travel restrictions, and checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Caritas Jerusalem provides primary healthcare, specialist services and health education to villages in the West Bank and in Gaza. Caritas Jerusalem has extended healthcare services to more than 20,000 patients through regular mobile clinics. Caritas Jerusalem was founded in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, to provide immediate relief – food, water and medical care – to war victims in the occupied Palestinian territories. Healthcare remains the core of its mission, but it has expanded its work to include employment programmes, children’s health camps, care of the elderly and counselling.
People of Peace
As I travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then up to the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of the Beatitudes, the words of Madame Habesch, former Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem, rang in my ears: ‘What is peace?’
It was a beautiful day and we were only around 30 kilometres from the borders of Lebanon and Syria. It came to me that perhaps the question I should be asking myself is not about the concept of peace but about the people of peace – the peacemakers.
Br Peter Bray, Vice-Chancellor of Bethlehem University, described the campus to us as an ‘Oasis of peace’.
He tells us that many people ask him what a Catholic University is doing in a country with a tiny Christian population. His answer is to refer the words of Jesus, ‘I have come that you may have life and life in abundance’.
‘It can be unclear what gives life,’ he said, ‘but it is very clear what doesn’t give life – fear, ignorance and oppression.’ The tertiary education Caritas in the Holy Land provided by Bethlehem University is open to all. The students who attend are Christian and Muslim, liberal and conservative, wealthy and poor. The environment of openness, sharing and learning creates a space for conversation and friendship.
Every Friday, after classes, a few of the De La Salle Brothers, who run the university, gather with several other residents of Bethlehem to pray the Rosary beside the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Quietly but firmly these men and women walk side-by-side along the wall in verbal meditation. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God’ Matthew 5:9.
Visit here for further reflections from Anna on peace and justice in Palestine.
New building for Bethlehem University
Meanwhile, building is about to start on land Bethlehem University has recently bought near the centre of Bethlehem and vice-chancellor Br Peter Bray is leading an enquiry into how the university can respond more adequately to the needs of the Palestinian people through the science faculty. Last year some 80 people participated in a review which Professor Michael Kelly of Cambridge University led.
Next month a similar review will proceed with the Faculty of Nursing and Health Sciences. At the same time, Br Peter says, from Bethlehem University, ‘we can view the expanding settlements which are spreading so quickly. I find it hard to see how peace can come with such moves that cut across the very trust that needs to be built.’
Students continue to face restrictions which hinder their progress.
One of the ambassadors for Bethlehem University, Walid, a 20-year-old second-year student from Hebron, revealed in conversation with English pilgrims recently, that he had never seen the sea. He told the shocked pilgrims that he can stand on the campus and look out over the wall to Jerusalem, but he has ‘never been able to get a permit to visit it’.
During a presentation to the United States Catholic Bishops Conference last year, Br Peter highlighted the fact that students like Walid have ‘done nothing to create the situation but have inherited it, and we have to work with them to keep hope alive and prevent them from becoming bitter … When they see their land being taken and their movement being restricted, this is a significant challenge.’
Br Peter says he is continually amazed at the resilience they show with much laughter and joy on the campus making it an oasis of peace.
The university is situated in Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem rather than in Gaza which was incorrectly stated in the December issue of Wel-Com. Br Peter says the university has not been able to take students from Gaza since 2000 because of the restrictions imposed by the Israelis.
Br Peter Bray will address a public meeting on Thursday 13 February, 7.30 to 9pm at St Joseph’s, Mt Victoria. Contact Cathy Bi for more information.