Bethlehem University and its Religious Studies Department have made significant efforts at initiating, supporting, and participating in interreligious dialogue. As an academic institution in the Holy Land, where religious pluralism is one of the area's most dominating characteristics, the Bethlehem University community has taken upon itself to carry the torch of interreligious dialogue in the Holy Land as a means to promote peaceful coexistence. In fact, Bethlehem University's relationship with the Muslim community goes back to its inception when the Sheikh of the Muslim city of Hebron in southern Palestine, Mohammad Ali Al-Ja'bari, visited the University in 1975. At the time, the University served mainly Christian students from all over Palestine. His visit was a breakthrough because it was the first time a renowned Sheikh toured the new University. As a result, a close relationship was forged between Bethlehem University and the Sheikh, so close that he even sent his daughter to study there. Relationships such as these continue to this day and are a result of efforts from both communities. More recent interreligious initiatives are listed below.
To strengthen its commitment through action, the Religious Studies Department offers two courses about dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews. These courses are co-taught by a faculty member who is Muslim and a faculty member who is Christian and serves students of both faith traditions in the same classes. The courses provide students with the academic arena through which to explore their own faith traditions and the faith tradition of the others while maintaining a spirituality of dialogue.
Realities of Coexistence- Sharing Experiences
The Religious Studies Department, in partnership with the Friends of Bethlehem University in the UK (FoBU-UK), the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and an anonymous donor, invited in September 2007 academics from 11 countries around the world to give presentations about the challenges of coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East and the West. The International Religious Conference "Exploring Christian-Muslim Relations in the Middle East and the West" placed emphasis on sharing the personal experiences of people living in different communities in order to exchange insights that could aid in practicing coexistence. Fr. Jamal Khader, Cardinal Basil Hume and Cardinal de Furstenberg Chair in Religious Studies, is busy preparing for this year's international religious conference that will highlight the use of the media and education to understand the other.
Six Muslim and three Christian students participated in a two-day program in interreligious dialogue organized by Dr. Inge Tiemann, guest lecturer from the German Association for Development Cooperation, and Br. Peter Iorlano, Coordinator of Institutional Values at Bethlehem University. The program included serious and focused group discussions, allowing participants to share difficult experiences with people from religions other then their own, express their understandings of Christianity and Islam, and search for what is common and what is not. By the end of the two-day program the nine students became more aware of how talking about their religions in the face of the other touches deeply on identity, a sensitive issue, and that religious expression can be more cultural than spiritual. Each student made a commitment to personally engage others in interreligious conversation and to help organize a follow up to this experience.
Christian Muslim Coexistence
In August 2005 Fr. Peter Du Brul, S.J., professor of Religious Studies at Bethlehem University, attended a conference in Alexandria on Christian-Muslim dialogue organized by the Jesuits of the Near East Province. Fr. Paulo del Oglio, S.J., a monk at Mar Mousa Monastery in Syria, Fr. Christian van Nispen, S.J., a professor at the Coptic Catholic Seminary in Cairo, and Fr. Samir Khalil, S.J., from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, presented papers on their work in Islamic society as it relates to Muslim Christian interactions in their respective societies. "The venue of the conference was significant because many interreligious initiatives are coming out of the Middle East region," Fr. Peter said. He added that the deep commitment of the Jesuits and many other academic, religious and social groups have contributed significantly to dialogue about coexistence between Christians, Muslims and Jews. "Co-existence is something we are challenged to explore more and more. As people are immigrating to countries where they are in the religious minority, they seek ways to fit in, to cope, to accept that there are whole societies in which they must live that have different belief systems, and yet, they are challenged to find ways to retain their own beliefs," Fr. Peter said.
Peace Through Encounter
In March 2005 Mr. Yousef Al-Hreimi, Muslim professor of Islam in the Religious Studies Department, participated in the conference entitled "Building Peace Through Interreligious Encounters" in the U.S. While visiting Notre Dame University, Mr. Hreimi gave a presentation to academics and students entitled "Developing Sustainable Policies for Interreligious Management of the Old City of Jerusalem," where he highlighted Jerusalem as a place where religious pluralism can exist, asserting that Islam has the capacity to promote coexistence. However, he argued that the Israeli occupation and the Judaization of Jerusalem has not only created severe tension between the followers of different faiths, but it has also homogenized the diverse character of the city, thereby preventing real coexistence from taking place.
Fostering Interreligious Dialogue
Fr. Jamal, Chairperson of the Religious Studies Department, participated in a series of four annual conferences of the Europe-Mediterranean network of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) which began in 2004. These annual conferences focused on how to better organize the work of IFCU to foster interreligious dialogue. The first conference was held in Rome and focused on initiating a network of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. The following two met in Marseille, France and the final one met in Barcelona, Spain in 2007.
Fr. Peter Du Brul, S.J., was asked to represent the Religious Studies Department at the September 2002 meeting of the International Federation of Catholic Universities in Marseille, France that focused on "Interreligious Mediation." Due to the large number of North Africans living in France, the need to train people in the municipalities to be sensitive to ethnic issues became evident. In order to identify these ethnic issues which are intertwined with religious tradition and practice, each conference participant focused on defining his faith to the others. Fr. Peter said that they came away with a better understanding of what faith in practice looks like and how it varies from country to country.
In June 2002, Bethlehem University's Religious Studies Department professor Mr. Yousef Al-Hreimi was invited by the Catholic University in Cologne to a conference on Interreligious Dialogue, together with the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Dr. Jeanne Kattan, and Mr. Fuad Giacaman of the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem. They were asked to speak and discuss Christian-Muslim conviviality. Mr. Hreimi, a Muslim on the faculty of Bethlehem University, said that their hosts were very sensitive to the issues at hand and that this initial collaboration was the beginning of their relationship which continues today.