Brigham Young University is a university operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes referred to as Mormons. The BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was built to house and educate BYU students who are attending a study abroad program for up to six months. The center is also used by research scholars, sometimes working with local scholars on various projects. Students study the Bible, ancient and modern near-eastern studies, Hebrew, and Arabic, with a particular focus on the life of Jesus Christ and the work of the apostles. They have classroom study interspersed with field trips throughout the region. It’s built on Mount Scopus overlooking the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and is made from white Jerusalem limestone. The center provides religious services for members of the church who live in or are visiting the area.
Students are oriented prior to embarking on their trip. They are required to sign a pledge that they will not use their time there to try to convert the Jewish people. The purpose of the center is education, not missionary work. Although there were some initial local protests, they subsided when the church worked with the government to create a legal document barring missionary work. In 1986, responding to the concerns, Nathan Perlmutter, U.S. national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith stated there was no evidence of any conversions in the years the church had been conducting their study abroad programs.
During the time of controversy, President Gordon B. Hinckley, who was then the second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, was asked:
Why is there so much controversy over the Brigham Young University Center now under construction in Jerusalem?
I cannot understand why there should be. Fears have been expressed that it will be used as a means to proselytize the Jewish people. University officials have given assurance that this will not be the case. All legal requirements were fully met, including the requisite public notice in Jerusalem papers, before the government granted construction permits. This is a facility designed to accommodate a program which has been carried on continuously for many years. It is intended to accommodate the needs of students who, in an academic atmosphere, can become better acquainted with the history, the culture, the nations, and the people of Israel and the Middle East. Experience has shown that those who have participated in the program have come away with increased appreciation for the influences and the people to whom they have been exposed there. BYU officials have received from many Jewish people and from people of other faiths expressions of support for this project. I am confident that in the long term it will redound to the good of the people of Israel as well as to the educational interests of BYU and its students.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Questions and Answers,” Ensign, Nov 1985, 49)
Students moved onto the campus in 1987. Previously, students who studied there lived at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. The church had operated Study Abroad programs in Jerusalem for seventeen years prior to the opening of the center.