In an earlier “Advancing the Kingdom” column, we reported on the efforts of Father George McLean’s to promote better inter-religious dialogue through his Council for Research in Values and Philosophy. What is strikingly evident in the history of this Council is the collaboration between adherents of Christianity and Islam in the promotion of human dignity. The same sensitivity for the need of this collaboration exists in Bethlehem.It is often observed that Christianity is the foundation of western civilization and of western education. How curious it is therefore that a Catholic Christian university was not founded in the birthplace of the Founder of Christianity until almost the third millennium after his birth. Is there some significance to this fact? Is Providence leading us in a new direction?
In 1973 the Bethlehem University of the Holy Land, a co-educational institution of higher learning, was founded. As its website explains, this university has both an intriguing genesis and history:
“During the historic visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in 1964, Palestinians expressed their desire to establish a university in their homeland. After consultation and study, and in the midst of the post-1967 war era which resulted in the West Bank and Gaza being under Israeli military occupation, it was in 1972 that the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Pio Laghi, formed a committee of local community leaders and heads of schools in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to establish an institution of higher learning which would offer a broad and practical university education in arts and sciences to meet the needs of the Palestinian society”.
With the support of the Oriental Churches and the De La Salle Christian Brothers (who have conducted schools in 80 countries since 1680), the University began with 112 students. In spite of not inconsiderable adversity, the school has experienced an increase in enrollment to over 3,000 in 2009.
By many accounts, the Christian presence in Palestine is problematic. This University exists to nurture it. However, it also exists to serve the general population, the majority of whom are Muslim, by providing the educational background necessary for the improvement of society. Despite being closed in the first decades of its existence by the Israeli military, the University has continually held classes either on or off campus since its founding.
Again to cite its website, “The University’s story is one of people committed to pursuing their higher education—perseverance and courage in the face of adversity and injustice—working together in hope with an ever widening international circle of colleagues to build a better future.”
More and more one gets the sense that Providence is suggesting to us that the advance of the Kingdom is going to require the travelers to pull together, and to do that they have to start with an encounter among themselves. Given its history, the Holy Land is not a bad place to start.