Fr Iyad twal heads the Religious Studies Department. The interreligious dialogue programme creates a space where students and teachers can create bonds of friendship, showing how religion can be "a tool of peace." Fr Twal hopes to expand the programme to all the universities in the Holy Land, involving Christians, Muslims, and Jews to highlight the “human side” of religion.
Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – Fr Iyad twal has been the head of the Religious Studies Department at Bethlehem University for the past three years. The 42-year-old spoke to AsiaNews about its interreligious dialogue programme, which is open to Christian and Muslim students.
Speaking about the latter, he noted that “when they register, their first goal is marks, high marks to get their degree. However, over time, they realise that their degree goes beyond marks, and becomes a lesson for life. In class, we want to provide a better understanding of the other, with a positive outlook, so that both Christians and Muslims can speak truly and honestly.”
As a private Catholic college, Bethlehem University is the only institution of higher learning that offers this kind of programme. For students and their families, if offers "a step forward towards co-existence and mission. This means that religion can become part of the solution and a tool of peace in this land."
Established in 1973 on the initiative of Pope Paul VI, the university has welcomed thousands of students over the past 40 years. The latter can choose among five faculties, including Business Administration and Nursing and Health Sciences.
In the past few years, interreligious dialogue has been offered to Christian and Muslim students, from various faculties and departments, interested in learning the basics of these two great religions. The goal is not academic per se, but is meant to highlight the human side, the contact points, and the elements in both on which peace and coexistence can be built.
The programme has five sessions per semester, three hours a week for 16 weeks. Open to a maximum of 45 students, it is divided into two parts, one taught by a Christian faculty member, the other by a Muslim.
The two courses on Christianity and Islam are separate but joint meetings are held to discuss common topics. For example, “Before Christmas,” Fr Iyad said, “we had a public meeting with all the students, and addressed the issue of peaceful resistance in Islam and Christianity."
Everyone can enrol but most of those who register are university students even though the courses are optional for graduation. Students coming from outside the Religious Studies Department “include nursing and science students, both male and female.”
The idea, first broached 12 years ago, is to help Christians and Muslims " know each other better," said Fr Iyad, so that they can overcome the mutual "prejudice and ignorance" that often hampers contact.
The two groups face concrete problems because Christians tend to live in the larger towns and cities, whereas Muslims are more rural; hence, they do not have many opportunities to meet, which limits interaction.
"We want to give young people of both faiths the ability to understand the other's religion, not with a desire to evangelise or compare, but only to explain and show, so that each can describe their own faith as they wish, i.e. bearing witness!"
For the head of the Religious Studies Department, the courses are instrumental in overcoming prejudice and ignorance. For instance, "Muslims wonder how Jesus can be the Son of God, and as God have sex with Mary . . . They do not understand.”
“What we do is illustrate the concept of the Immaculate Conception of the Trinity,” Fr Twal explained. “This way they understand the dogma, things are clearer in their minds, and the walls of ignorance fall. Muslims also like the idea of a God who is love.”
Another recurring element in the programme is the sense of community in the Holy Land. “All of us are citizens of this land. Being one of its citizen means accepting that all three monotheistic religions belong to this land. People must know history and in history are the three religions. There are no infidels, no anomalies."
According to a pre-Christmas survey among students, the programme "has changed people’s lives”. Today, various young people, including Muslims, “come to me for spiritual guidance,” Fr Twal said. They come “to confide in me, call me abouna, father, because they feel close to us. Initially, they were cold, but as the course unfolds connections are made.”
Fr Twal now hopes that the programme “will not be limited to Bethlehem but will be extended to all of the universities of the Holy Land, in Palestine and Israel.”
“I hope that it will not be too academic,” he added, “but centred on the human side, open to all three religions and attended by Christian, Muslim and Jewish students”.