In 1979, aboard a Greek ship called Stella Solaris, President Spencer W. Kimball, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Howard W. Hunter of the Quorum of the Twelve announced to a small group of students that Brigham Young University would build a permanent educational and religious complex in Jerusalem. The center would later be known as the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.
President Kimball was traveling to Israel to dedicate the Orson Hyde Memorial Gardens, located east of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.
This garden, created to commemorate Orson Hyde’s visit in 1841 in Jerusalem, was the largest parcel given to an outside group as part of the new 600-acre Jerusalem Gardens National Park, which now encompasses the historic area around Jerusalem’s Old City according to one 1978 Sign article.
Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek who attended the inauguration ceremony vocally rented gardens and exchanged gifts with Kimball.
“The Jerusalem Center,” President Kimball said after the center’s public announcement, “will be further proof of how seriously the university takes its long-held claim that the world is our campus.”
In 1980, a location was chosen in East Jerusalem on the southwest side of Mount Scopus, two kilometers northeast of Orson Hyde Memorial Park. The chosen terrain, however, was not for sale, because it had been expropriated from Arab landowners by the Israeli government after the Six Day War of 1967 and was under the authority of the Israel Land Authority. The Israel Land Authority is the public manager of 93% of land in Israel according to its website.
The Israel Land Authority agency was founded in 1960 and follows a basic policy of not selling any land or transferring any land ownership rights, but offering interested parties 49 or 98 year tenancy rights. on real estate under its control.
Then, as now, Israel faced international pressure to return its captured and annexed West Bank lands east of Jerusalem to its former Arab owners. However, rather than doing so, the Israeli government throughout the 1970s and 1980s research to establish a demographic and physical presence in the region, thus “redeeming the land” by making it appear less Arab and more Jewish.
By the end of 1980, the Church had negotiated a preliminary and renewable 49-year lease of the land with the Israeli authorities. This rental agreement has been adapted several times over the following years until it was agreed and signed in its final state in 1988.
A 1985 Washington Post article documents how, while many other Christian groups were interested in gaining a presence in the Holy Land in the 1980s, the Israeli government (in part because of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox opposition) often sought to prevent such groups from ” acquire a significant physical presence.
An article titled “The spatial transgression and the BYU Jerusalem Center controversyDetails how the Israeli government has received political support and solidarity from Christians. In order for one or the other of the major parties to obtain a majority in the Knesset (Israeli legislature), they needed the support of the Orthodox community (called Haredim in the Israeli legislature).
The article then documented how the group opposes, among many other practices, any active proselytizing by Christians in Jerusalem and significant “outside” construction projects by proselytizing Christian groups.
the Washington post documented how many people feared that the new center would allow an increase in missionary work among Jews living in Israel. The Haredim were among the the most virulent critics when construction of the BYU Jerusalem Center began in August 1984.
the the dedication has been completed on May 16, 1989, almost a year after construction was completed and a group of students had already moved in. No press was present at the dedication, and the Church shared that the dedication did not take place until a month later.
Since the inauguration, the center has hosted hundreds of BYU students and faculty. The center has also employed many Israeli and Palestinian workers over the years, according to a David Whitchurch’s 2016 BYU Devotion.
Kaye Terry Hanson was Associate Director of the Jerusalem Center in the 1990s. During a devotion in 2002, she mentionned that everyone she knew in the Holy Land sought peace.
“In central Jerusalem, we employed both Israeli and Palestinian workers. They worked side by side, with respect for the most part; With a bit of luck; and with responsibility ”, Hanson mentionned. “This microcosm of the society of the Holy Land leads me to believe – to hope – that there is a solution to the anger between the two peoples. ”