Luke Coppen meets Brother Vincent Malham, the president of Bethlehem University, on the eve of the Vatican-sponsored institution's 30th anniversary
Brother Vincent Malham wakes up with the dawn. He has a wash, a quick shot of coffee and leaves his residence. He arrives at work at 6.15arn and heads for his office, where he calls up his emails to see what lies in store for the day ahead. Then he sits down at the piano and plays until it is time for morning prayer.
Brother Vincent, a former music teacher, likes to play "a bit of evemything", though he isn't keen on the avant-garde. He prefers the classics: Chopin, Schumann, Haydn, Handel and Bach. And he has a soft spot for the musical comedy of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
When life is difficult these early morning practices bring Brother Vincent peace and solace. Sometimes less than a mile from his office Islamic extremists exchange small arms fire with battle-hardened soldiers. But Brother Vincent's office is "a sea of tranquillity in an ocean of turmoil". There may be house-to-house fighting outside, but for a few minute, each morning the piano reminds him that there is beauty, as well as horror, in this world.
Ilie 69-year-old De La Salle Christian Brother feels privileged to live in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. When he was growing up, he never imagined hc would end up there. He was born in the United States. More precisely, Hot Springs. Arkansas, a Bible belt town associated with the former American president Bill Clinton. Brother Vincent's family was not typically Southern: it was Catholic, rather than Baptist, and his parents were from Syria and Lebanon. Growing up, he always felt a great affinity with the Middle East. As he put it during a visit 10 London last week: "I am from the West. I grew up in the West. I was educated in the West. But I think that my spirit and heart belong in the Middle East."
Brother Vincent was an academically and musically gifted student. For many years he taught music at a Christian Brothers school in Memphis, Tennessee. He took a masters in the subject, and finally a doctorate in music education. At the same time, he pursued his religious vocation, becoming provincial superior of the De La Salle brothers' province of St Louis, Missouri. After serving several terms, he was given a sabbatical, which he decided to spend thinking and praying over his future. He lived at a Benedictine abbey, then travelled to Guadalajara in Mexico to learn Spanish. He thought that God was calling him to minister to Hispanic Catholics in the United States. He was wrong.
"One day I got a phone call from our superior general in Rome, who was a very good friend of mine," he recalls in a wood-panelled conference room in The Catholic Herald building. "He said: 'Vince, are you standing or sitting?' I said: 'I am standing.' He said: 'You might like to sit down.' So I sat down and he said: 'You are going to Bethlehem."
Brother Vincent joined the faculty at Bethlehem University, a Vatican-sponsored academy in the heart of the holy City, where he taught English and music. In 1998, he was elected vice-chancellor. When the authorities realised that he was of Arab origin, he was also appointed university president, a post that must be occupied by an Arab.
"I was immediately accepted because of my Arab descent," he says. "It has helped me to understand the complexity of the situation."
Days after the university first opened its doors to students the Yom Kippur war between Egypt, Syria and Israel broke out. Ever since, the institution has suffered severe disruption. This week Bethlehem University is celebrating a milestone in its turbulent history.
"We are entering our 30th anniversary year at the university," Brother Vincent explains. "We began in 1973 at the request of Pope Paul VI, with a body of 100 students. Today we have 2,100 students. In our 30-year history we have been closed 12 times. The longest time was from 1987-1990, during the first intifada [Palestinian uprising]. Since the second intifada began [in September 2000] we have been tremendously impacted.
"Two years ago, during the school year 2001-2002, we were closed for 75 days — that's two and a half full months. Last year, 20022003, we were closed for 33 days. It's in that context that we've had to try and run a university."
Trying to run a university has sometimes brought Brother Vincent and his colleagues into the line of fire. On November 1, 2000, an Israeli bullet shattered the window of a brother's office, moments after the brother had left the room. Brother Vincent complained to the local army commander and in a public statement he denounced what he described as "unwarranted attacks on Bethlehem University, which is Vatican property and a Catholic institution dedicated to providing quality education to young Palestinians".
ln October 2001, during fierce fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, 107 rounds struck the brothers' campus residence in the space of two days. A portrait of the order's founder was speckled with bullet holes. "We were terrified," Brother Vincent told reporters. "The past few days we are living under terror."
And in April 2002, the brothers were held by the Israeli army after more than 200 Palestinians, including wanted militants, policemen and civilians, sought refuge in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. The university was closed throughout the resulting 39-day siege.
Brother Vincent believes that there are three possible explanations for the Israeli army's actions: "One reason could be a show of power: we can do whatever we want, wherever we want, even in Bethlehem. Another reason could be that they were hitting directly at academic institutions. Thirdly, because they may have heard artillery activity in the area and they wanted to stop it. But nobody was shooting from our campus."
No one was available at Israel's London press office to give the Israeli government perspective on these incidents.
It is possible that the Israelis were concerned by the politicisation of Bethlehem University's student body. The student branches of the main Palestinian political movements — Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — are active on campus. Brother Vincent says that the presence of these groups sometimes perturbs him, but he argues that his students gravitate towards politics because there is no other channel for their energies in the West Bank.
'There are moments when it's difficult. But by and large it's well controlled. We work closely with the student leaders. But students are students. They are young and they have nothing else, no normal outlets. So their interest is going to be in political events."
Brother Vincent says the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for one of his students to become a suicide bomber: "If there were one, and they came from Bethlehem, we would be collectively punished. We would be shut down."
This is an extreme scenario, and the students at Bethlehem University are far removed from the bandanawearing fanatics shown in grainy Islamist propaganda videos.
"Since last February 1, we have been able to run the university somewhat normally," Brother Vincent says. "We don't have curfews. We were able to finish the last spring term only one month late."
But normal is a relative word in the West Bank. Many students and staff face the daily inconvenience of passing through Israeli checkpoints. And the university itself faces a constant struggle to ensure its funding.
"The average tuition fee is about £700 for one student for the whole year. It costs about £2,100 to teach each student. And we haven't been able to get much help from the Palestinian Authority, because they're broke too."
With the Vatican contributing 14 per cent of the university's budget, Brother Vincent and his team raise between 45-60 per cent of funds each year. Brother Vincent's musical ability comes in handy. A few days before he came to London he spoke and played at a banquet for the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. He is off soon to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The university's financial problems mirror the economic crisis in wider Palestinian society. Many of the university's graduates will struggle to find jobs.
"The bottom line is, the economy being what it is, there just aren't many jobs. That's another reason why the university is so valuable. If the university is closed these young people would be sitting around and some of them would be getting into trouble."
Despite the momentous daily challenges facing the university, Brother Vincent is sanguine. He believes that life will improve in Bethlehem and ordinary Palestinians will be able to enjoy the freedom they deserve.
"If we didn't have hope we wouldn't still be here," he says with a smile. "We've been so blessed, because in spite of the difficulties we've not only survived, we've developed."
For more information on Bethlehem University, visit vww beihlehem.edu