As Israel hunts down Hamas militants with sweeping attacks throughout Palestinian territories, the devastation is felt by both Muslims and Christians.
In the West Bank, faculty at Bethlehem Bible College cling to hope that Christian friends in Gaza hold on to life.
“Bethlehem has been under siege,” reported Andrew F. Bush on Oct. 31. A part of Methacton Mennonite Church in Norristown, Pa., Bush directs the college’s Bethlehem Institute for Peace and Justice. “The Israeli Defense Forces’ closure of all the roads into Bethlehem is strangling its economy. With little money, families are conserving their resources. Few cars are on the road. Restaurants are closed. Schools are open intermittently.
“These troubles are light, though — and everyone in Bethlehem knows it — compared to the devastation of Gaza. The prevailing mood in the city of the birthplace of the Prince of Peace is one of depression and anger at the indiscriminate bombing in all parts of Gaza, and the thousands of innocent Palestinian lives lost, including 3,500 children.”
Although many foreigners streamed out of Bethlehem at the war’s outbreak in October, Bush felt his family needed to stay because the college’s peace studies program is more critical than ever.
“Staying is costly. It causes great anxiety for our adult children in the States,” he said. “We also must work through our moments of panic when an app on my phone alerts us to an incoming rocket.
“By remaining in Bethlehem, we have been able to walk with our Christian friends through these dark weeks. Some faculty at the college have needed support when their family members were killed by an Israeli missile that struck the St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church in Gaza that was sheltering Christians on Oct. 19. Also, vulnerable Palestinians in Bethlehem still need ministry.”
The college condemned the attack on the church in an Oct. 23 update to supporters.
“In that one attack 17 Christians lost their lives, in addition to the several thousand that have been lost in the whole Gaza Strip,” wrote BBC President Jack Sara of the college’s commitment to help deliver aid to those impacted by violence. “We are equally saddened but the loss of lives, but also very concerned that soon Gaza will not have any Christians left there at all.
“This hits very close to us as one of our leaders at the college, Shireen Awwad, lost her aunt, and several other relatives of hers are severely wounded.”
BBC is an international partner of Mennonite Church Canada with Mennonite roots in North American partnerships.
The college’s founder, Bishara Awad, went to the United States as a young man in the 1960s for higher education, including a year from 1981 to 1982 at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in California, now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. When he returned to work with Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine in 1972, Awad noticed that many other Palestinians did not have the same educational opportunities. In 1979, he founded Bethlehem Bible College as an option for Palestinians to receive a theological education without international travel.
Today the college offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It is also home to the Bethlehem Institute for Peace and Justice, a program that teaches peace and justice from a Palestinian perspective.
BIPJ began in 2021 when BBC, which identifies as a “Palestinian Christian Evangelical university college” and welcomes students of all denominations, relaunched its peace program, which had faltered for logistical reasons. Bush, professor emeritus of missiology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., came to BBC in 2019 and developed an online format for the program.
BIPJ now offers a Master of Arts in Peace and Justice in a Palestinian Context, as well as other certificate courses. Students study online during the academic year and come to in-person summer intensives in Palestine.
Students come from all over the world, including Europe, the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Cameroon, Tanzania and South Africa. Some are simply interested in peacemaking; others want to study peacemaking in a Palestinian context. Recently BIPJ started a partnership with Eastern University that allows students cross-register at either institution for credit.
Peace runs deeply through BBC. For founder Bishara Awad, peace came only after he was able to forgive the Israelis who killed his father in 1948. When Awad was 9, his father was killed by an Israeli bullet when he left the house and walked into the street. Awad and his siblings were playing in the backyard.
As Palestinian Christians, Awad and his family held strongly to Jesus’ teachings against war and violence. But he harbored anger and bitterness toward the Israelis. It was not until he was an adult that Awad was able to forgive them and be released from his hatred. After this, he became a more effective teacher.
“It is only right that from the city of the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, we sow seeds of peace throughout all the world,” he said in 2021.