Christians in Bethlehem Denied “Permission” to Practice Their Faith

Israeli Authorities Say “NO” to Christian Students at Bethlehem University

Bethlehem University, 17 April 2005:  Thousands of Christian pilgrims came to Jerusalem for the Holy Days of Easter.  It has been widely reported across the international media that thousands of pilgrims from around the world flocked to Jerusalem for this year’s Holy Week and Easter celebrations.  While this unique graced opportunity must have been wonderful for them, Christians living only 5 miles away in Bethlehem were denied this opportunity to practice their faith by the Israeli military authorities. 

No, not everyone who wanted to come to Jerusalem was permitted to do so.  Father Jamal Khader, Chairperson of the Religious Studies Department at Bethlehem University, the only Catholic Christian university in the Holy Land, reports that despite being “promised” that Bethlehem Christians – including students from the Vatican-sponsored Bethlehem University – would be given permits to travel into Jerusalem during the two week Easter season, these “permissions” were denied by the Israeli authorities. 

 

Anticipating the opportunity to bring Christian university students from Bethlehem to Jerusalem (only 5 miles away) for Easter, Father Jamal and other Bethlehem University faculty members prepared two projects for two groups of Christian students. 

Jewish Weekend Denied

First, as part of their academic course on Judaism, a “Jewish weekend” was planned for one group.  This was to include a Sabbath prayer in a Synagogue, a meeting with students of the Hebrew University, a presentation by a Jew about his faith (something we can not do at Bethlehem because  the Israeli authorities do not permit Israeli Jews to come to Bethlehem), a visit to Yad Vashem, and to conclude with the Christian Palm Sunday procession.  Permission denied!

Galilee Retreat Denied

The second group of students were those majoring in Religious Studies at Bethlehem University and those involved in the Christian Youth Group (Al-Shabibeh).  For this group, a pilgrimage and retreat to the Galilee was planned since most of the Bethlehem University students have never been to Nazareth or other Holy Places in the Galilee region.  Permission denied!

Father Jamal requested permits for 65 students and received permits for only 6 students – and these 6 were for only one day, a day not requested!  No reasons were given for the denial of the 59 other applications for permits.  No reason was given as to why these 6 students received only a one-day permission – and that being for the wrong day! 

Attempts were made to have the applications reconsidered – but to no avail. 

Yes, it was a wonderful Holy Week and Easter celebration in Jerusalem for thousands of pilgrims from around the world who gathered in the town next door to Bethlehem.  But not so for the Christians of Bethlehem. Suffering due to the Israeli military occupation continues to be a daily experience.  Since “permission” for Bethlehem Christians to practice their faith in Jerusalem was denied, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus were commemorated here in Bethlehem.  For the  thousands of Christians from around the world who were granted permission by the Israeli authorities to come to Jerusalem, it was a wonderful  graced celebration.  One day, maybe the Bethlehem Christians might also be counted among those so “permitted.”

Israeli Authorities Repeatedly Deny Christians

When asked if this was the first time that Bethlehem Christians were prevented from practicing their religion by the Israeli authorities, Father Jamal told of the 3 times during the recent Fall 2005 academic semester when requests from Bethlehem University students for permission to go to the Galilee for a pilgrimage retreat were denied by the Israeli authorities – with no explanation. 

The travel permission application is an involved and time-consuming process whereby Father Jamal gathers student names, ID numbers, letters of recommendation from the University or from the Latin Patriarch (Roman Catholic Diocesan Bishop) – in addition to making plans for the retreat program and reservations for the pilgrim housing.  Each time that permits are requested, there is a time of waiting and great uncertainty involved.  Sometimes it is up to the last moment that one must wait for a reply.  In June 2005, for instance, a pilgrimage retreat for the high school religion teachers completing their two-year teacher upgrading program was planned.  While the permission to travel was granted, it was granted at 8am on the very day of the pilgrimage retreat – but only for two-thirds of the students – and the permits were only for 1 day, not for the 3 days requested and planned. 

Pope Calls for Patient and Persevering Dialogue

After praying for peace in Iraq during his Easter homily in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI continued, ''I also pray sincerely that those caught up in the conflict in the Holy Land may find peace, and I invite all to patient and persevering dialogue, so as to remove both ancient and new obstacles.  May the international community, which reaffirms Israel's just right to exist in peace, assist the Palestinian people to overcome the precarious conditions in which they live and to build their future, moving toward the constitution of a state which is truly their own.”

Latin Patriarch Calls For a New Beginning

Reflecting on the reality of suffering, death and injustice in the Holy Land, in his Easter message, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said, “We must believe in our capacity to love, all of us, Israelis and Palestinians. We are capable of loving and of making justice for ourselves and for others. We need a new beginning based on new principles and a new perspective on life in this Holy Land.  We are capable of freeing ourselves from the death that has been imposed on us until now. We, Israelis and Palestinians, are capable of freeing ourselves from the fear that comes from violence and terrorism, from the occupation imposed by the law of the strongest, and by the logic of death and hate.”

Faith in the Resurrection

Many say that the whole issue of seeking permits is absurd.  Christians from Bethlehem need permits from the Israeli military authorities in order to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or to visit the Holy Sites in the Galilee.  Most students graduate from Bethlehem University without ever visiting Jerusalem or Nazareth because they do not receive “permission” from the Israeli authorities.  The Christian students who are majoring inReligious Studies at Bethlehem University take a course about the Holy Land without visiting the Holy Land beyond Bethlehem!  They have a course about Judaism without meeting any Jew (other than soldiers and settlers).  Why?  Because of the Israeli travel restrictions and the injustices of the on-going occupation.  Yes, all of this is absurd – but so is the cross to those without faith in the resurrection.  We know the “whole” story: not only is there the passion and death, but there is also the resurrection! 

Source of Hope

In his Easter message to the friends of Bethlehem University, Brother Daniel Casey, Vice Chancellor, reminded us that “many of our crosses are opportunities to be sources of hope, of joy, of discovery, of healing, of life—for ourselves and others.  The challenge Jesus calls us to take up is to transform our crosses, as he did.   These crosses, when taken up in a spirit of humble compassion with which Jesus took up his, are the first light of Easter dawn.”  Let us live in the light of Easter dawn, with hope for a better tomorrow!