Student Life in Occupied Palestine

WelCom March 2020: Fr Gerard Burns To have a safe place, to be a beacon of hope, to offer a service to the Palestinian people.  These were the aims of the…

WelCom March 2020:

Br Peter Bray, vice-chancellor of Bethlehem University with students
on campus.
Photo: Supplied

Fr Gerard Burns

To have a safe place, to be a beacon of hope, to offer a service to the Palestinian people. 

These were the aims of the work of Bethlehem University presented by Br Peter Bray a New Zealander, De La Salle Brother and vice-chancellor of the university. On a recent visit to New Zealand he addressed a gathering at St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington, 11 February, to talk about student life in the extremely difficult circumstances of occupied Palestine.

Br Peter has been working at the university in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank since 2008. He described the situation of the students of the university in the midst of the difficulties and dangers of life under occupation by the Israeli military. Just getting to the university through checkpoints, delays, the awful separation wall is a struggle in itself.

‘There are many challenges facing us as we seek to provide quality higher education for our students. The most obvious are the restrictions on movement. At present, 46 per cent of our students come from East Jerusalem. To attend class they must pass through a military checkpoint at the wall each day – an unpredictable and humiliating experience. What these students face on their way to and from the university is the possibility that their bus may be stopped once or twice or even three times by different groups of Israeli soldiers. They can be questioned, interrogated, arrested; they could have a gun held to their face without any warning. You can imagine how they might feel by the time they arrive at school.’ 

The chaos, destruction and danger the occupation brings in the lives of the Palestinian people means the first thing the university tries to offer is a safe space for all its students. Of these students almost 80 per cent are women. One of the signs of the confidence that Muslim families show in this clearly Christian institution is they are prepared to entrust their daughters to it. 

The university was the first registered in the Palestinian territories, set up by the De La Salle brothers in 1973 at the request of Paul VI as a service to the Palestinian people. It has four faculties – Nursing and Health Sciences, Education, Business Administration and Science, plus an Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism. It is relatively small (3,259 students) but the quality of its work and its durability make it a beacon of hope. And in offering an opportunity to form the next generation of Palestinian leaders it is a service to the present and future of the Palestinians.

Br Peter sprinkled his talk with short video clips of the students at the university speaking for themselves about their lives, their situations, their hopes and their learnings at the university. The university gives the students the opportunity to learn about each other’s religions and practices. It is also a symbol of the importance and vitality of the ancient Christian presence in the Holy Land.

The university has to find its funding from various sources, including from other universities, donors and Church institutions. Apart from maintaining the ethos of the university, Br Peter has to travel far and wide to tell the story of the university and seek funds for its work. In Wellington donations of almost $1,200 were collected at his talk. 

Bethlehem University is a unique Catholic co-educational institution, founded in the Lasillian tradition, in the town of Jesus’ birth and open to students of all faith traditions. Its mission is to provide quality higher education to the people of Palestine and to serve them in its role as a centre for the advancement, sharing and use of knowledge. The first university founded in the West Bank, it traces its roots to 1883 when the De La Salle Christian Brothers opened schools in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Today, the university consists mostly of Muslim students. Visit: 

If you wish to contribute to Bethlehem University’s work, you can donate through Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand ‘Peace in the Middle East’ fund at or can call 0800 22 10 22, or email with any questions.

Br Peter Bray’s talk in Wellington was sponsored by Wellington Palestine Organisation and Mons Gerard Burns, Vicar-General for the Archdiocese.

RNZ interview with Br Peter Bray, 2 February 2020: