In 1998, a student initiative forged the first contacts between the Catholic University of Applied Sciences of North Rhine – Westphalia and Bethlehem University. In 2001, the Cologne department and Bethlehem University initiated an official exchange programme. Each year, usually for 12 days, the universities organize student events, research projects, and video seminar on topics related to social work. The location alternates between Bethlehem and Cologne. In addition, the universities regularly organise international conferences.
The exchange programme aims to promote innovative skill-centred learning and the integration of new research, interdisciplinary approaches and international perspectives in the curricula. Moreover, it is designed to foster international research, and development policy education and intercultural skills. It works to sensitize participating faculty and students from Germany for the situation of the people in Palestine. The lives of young people in the West and in Arab countries seem to be growing more and more apart, even as their worlds continue to merge through globalisation. Project participants are encouraged to think about the ways their identities have been shaped by their culture and find out what they have to learn from each other’s. The programme emphasizes questions related to inter- and intracultural identity, empowerment and solidarity.
In 1996, the city of Cologne, at the behest of its mayor Norbert Burger and the former federal minister Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, formed a partnership with the city of Bethlehem. The first delegation to Cologne, in May 1997, consisted of 15 social work students from Bethlehem University under the direction of professor Khader Musleh. The Palestinian group participated in several seminars at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences on the future of sustainable development and intercultural communication. More exchanges came in the years that followed:
- September 1998: 16 students in Cologne visited Bethlehem to learn about social work in Palestine
- April 1999: 16 students from Bethlehem University met in Cologne to discuss intercultural social work in Germany and in Palestine.
- March 2000: 16 students in Cologne visited Bethlehem to consider the political situation in Palestine and its effects on social work.
Since 2001, the Social Services Department at the Cologne department of the Catholic University of Applied Sciences and the Social Science Department at Bethlehem University have organized regular international encounters in both cities.
Bethlehem University was founded in 1973 in the Lasallian tradition and is sponsored by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It is the oldest university in the West Bank territory.
As of 2021, around 3400 students – 78% Muslim, 22% Christian – were enrolled across the university’s 7 faculties. Interfaith dialogue and peaceful religious coexistence are part of the institution’s core mission.