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Future grim for BYU's Jerusalem Center

PROVO — Students haven't set foot in Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center for more than two years.

A looming war in Iraq doesn't bode well for their return.

"It's a sad time," said Jim Kearl, the BYU administrator charged with oversight of the center since 1989. "The Jerusalem Center was — it is — a wonderful program, and we'd very much like to have students back there."

At full capacity, the center annually housed more than 820 students. In November 2000, with violence between Israelis and Palestinians spilling into the city's streets, BYU yanked 175 students out of Israel before the semester ended.

Now a skeleton staff of volunteers keeps the center open to visitors. The university won't reveal the number of volunteers for security reasons and a spokeswoman declined to comment on U.S. plans for a possible war against Iraq.

"The situation is monitored daily, but we are not speculating on what we will do or not do," Carri Jenkins said. "There are plans in place."

Kearl said Jerusalem's citizens want BYU's students to return, too.

"Everybody's frustrated right now," he said, "and nobody sees a real end in sight. They're anxious to have us back. They're anxious to have tourism return and we're a small part of that."

Jenkins said BYU doesn't have a waiting list for students who want to study at the center, but there is a mailing list for people who want updates.

"The area needs to be safe before we can send students in again," she said.

Kearl visits the center, which is on a hill near a Palestinian complex and Hebrew University, two or three times a year to visit with the staff and speak with city officials. The center hasn't had a director on site since Arnold Green, a BYU history professor, returned to Provo last summer.

However, the center remains open.

"We have had an outreach program for more than a decade," Kearl said. "We're just continuing that program. We run a concert series similar to the concert series on Tabernacle Square every Sunday. We've expanded that to included occasional concerts during the week.

"We also continue to host visitors who come to see the architecture and view the vista of the city from the center."

The center's volunteers also provide English instruction in local schools and workshops on music education and curriculum design.

Kearl said the center is involved with non-governmental organizations in Jerusalem who help distribute goods from the humanitarian services arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU. Charity is earmarked for both Israelis and Palestinians.

"We're trying to be a good citizen in the community and make some contribution to the welfare of the city," Kearl said.

The Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, spoke with BYU president Merrill J. Bateman for 30 minutes on Friday. Also, Kearl briefed him on the center's past operations and current status.

"This is very unfortunate," Al-Kidwa said. "I hope and believe this will end very soon. Palestinian officials are more than willing to cooperate fully. We hope to see again a working and improved center."

Al-Kidwa said students and faculty provided a valuable American eye on the city's tensions.

"There is value for us for anyone to come and see the situation as it is," he said. "We feel we have suffered partially because of the bias of the media. First-hand experience is crucial."