ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Son of Bethlehem

Bethlehem University offers new hope to the young in the Holy Land.

Selim Handel was born in Bethlehem in a house situated only a few yards from the cave where it is said Mary gave birth to Jesus. When he was a few months old, Selim and his family, who are Arab Christians, were forced to flee across the River Jordan into exile. It wasn’t until after the signing of the 1949 Armistice agreements that the family could return to Bethlehem and the boy could grow up in the quiet country town.

The simple drama of Christmas and the Holy Family’s flight into exile relived by the Handels, has been repeated in recent years by many families in the Holy Land. Selim, who is now 27, believes that because of these experiences, his people can better understand the lessons of the gospels.

Selim has a keen interest in the history of the Holy Land, and his own family is a miniature of the trials of that history. Not too long ago, Selim discovered through baptismal records in a Franciscan parish in Bethlehem, that his family name “Handel” is a modification of the crusader name “Hamdel”an ancestor who helped defend the Holy Places against Islam.

A concern with the dramatic effects of history on people’s lives has led to Selim’s desire to be a playwright. Although he has already written ten plays and produced two of them, Selim was not able to develop his skills through a higher education until two years ago. Local opportunities were simply not available. Politics plagued the Bethlehem region, denominational schools split Arab youths according to religious loyalties, and quota systems limited the numbers admitted into already established institutions. But in October 1973, in spite of opposition from many quarters, a University sponsored by Catholics sprung up in the city of David.

Situated on the highest point in Bethlehem, the University offers courses towards a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences, education and hotel management. Because it operates in the town of Christ’s birth, it is dedicated to the Holy Child, and a golden statue of the infant Jesus stands atop the school’s tower.

Started as the “People’s University” by the Pope’s representative, Archbishop Pio Laghi, it is open to both Christian and Moslem alike. Selim Handel sees it as “…one of the greatest chances for reconciliation in the recent history of the Holy Land.” According to him, “Before 1973, the young were searching for opportunities outside this country. The opening of Bethlehem U, has given us new hope for life and peace in our own land.”

Selim is now studying English and Arabic literature at the University, and plans a career in radio and television script-writing after he graduates. “I want to help with the public education of my people,” he says, “and I believe that through communications and modern drama we can learn to deal with our lives and to profit from the lessons of our history.”

Bethlehem University has a top qualified staff, an excellent basic library in both Arabic and English, and a wide selection of subjects. According to most students, it is in many ways equal to Jordan University in Amman, and Hebrew University – which was founded by the British 50 years ago. One of the greatest prides of the young University is its well-run nursing program, which will help supply qualified personnel to local hospitals now suffering severe shortages.

New ways of dealing with people are also learned at the University. There is a contrast between life on the campus and life outside. The country market town of Bethlehem, surrounded by some of the most beautiful and historic scenery in the world, is culturally very traditional even today. A social gap exists between male and female, and Palestinian codes of conduct do not allow meetings between girls and boys without chaperones. On campus in the co-educational University, however, girls and boys work together and treat each other as equals. They are learning that it is not only possible, but necessary for men and women to be friends and to cooperate in making this a better world.

In spite of the culture contrast, almost every family in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside wants its daughters and sons to go to the University. “Now we can receive higher education in our homeland,” says Selim, “and although I intend to continue studying drama in the U.S. or Europe, I plan to spend my later years writing and teaching here at Bethlehem University.”

Bethlehem plays a unique as well as a symbolic role in Middle Eastern affairs. The line which divides Jewish Israel, with its Western industrial society from the agricultural Arab lands of traditional Eastern ways, runs like a knife between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The line marks the meeting point of East and West – of the Third World and the wealthy states. It is also the perfect blend of Western civilization with Eastern culture. Classes, although primarily held in Arabic at Bethlehem University, attempt to synthesize the best of both worlds. The University promises to be a keystone in bridging the gap by developing the human resources of this ancient land.

Though the political situation is like the shadow of the cross in the Middle East, the art of living means looking to the political future. Selim speaks optimistically of that future. “There will be no differences which divide us whether we be Christian, Muslim, Jew, male or female. We shall be different but equal, and some of us are trying to live this future among ourselves right now in the University community.

Bethlehem University has effectively halted the mass exodus of local talent. It was the generosity of concerned Catholics – many of them through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association – which was responsible for the University opening. As Selim says, “This giving for the sake of others is a real gospel witness, for now, in this place of Christ’s birth, we have a university which is open to all.”

Desmond Sullivan, a frequent contributor to this magazine, lives in Jerusalem and is area correspondent for the National Catholic News Service, Washington, D.C.

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