In 1979, aboard a Greek ship called the Stella Solaris, President Spencer W. Kimball, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Elder 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 on his way to Israel to dedicate the Orson Hyde Memorial Gardens which was located east of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.
This garden, established to commemorate Orson Hyde’s 1841 visit to Jerusalem, was the largest tract given to an outside group as part of the newly planned 600-acre Jerusalem Gardens National Park, which now encompasses the historic area around the Old City of Jerusalem according to a 1978 Ensign article.
In attendance at the dedication ceremony was Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who vocally praised the gardens and exchanged gifts with Kimball.
“The Jerusalem Center,” President Kimball said after the public announcement of the center, “will stand as further evidence of how seriously the university believes its long held assertion 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 the Orson Hyde Memorial park. The selected land, however, was not for sale, as it had been expropriated from Arab owners by the Israeli government after the 1967 Six Day War and was under the authority of the Israel Land Authority. The Israel Land Authority is the public manager of 93% of the 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 instead offering interested parties 49- or 98-year leasing rights to real estate under its control.
At the time, much like today, Israel was facing international pressure to return its captured and annexed lands in the West Bank located East of Jerusalem to its previous Arab owners. However, rather than do this, the Israeli government throughout the 1970s and 1980s sought to establish demographic and physical presence in the region, thereby “redeeming the land” by making it appear less Arab and more Jewish.
By the end of 1980, the Church had negotiated a preliminary, renewable 49-year lease of the land with Israeli authorities. This lease agreement was adapted multiple times over the proceeding years until it was agreed upon 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 these groups from gaining a significant physical presence.
An article titled “Spatial Transgression and the BYU Jerusalem Center Controversy” details how the Israeli government welcomed the political backing and solidarity of Christians. For either major party to gain a majority in the Knesset (Israeli legislature), they needed the support of the Orthodox community (called the Haredim in the Israeli legislature).
The article later documented how the group objects to, among many other practices, any active proselytizing by Christians in Jerusalem and prominent “outsider” building projects by proselytizing Christian groups.
The Washington Post documented how many people feared that the new center would enable an increase in missionary work among Jewish people living in Israel. The Haredim were among the most vocal critics when construction of the BYU Jerusalem Center began in August 1984.
The dedication was completed on May 16, 1989, nearly a year after construction was finished and a group of students had already moved in. No press was present at the dedication, and the Church did not share that the dedication happened until one month later.
Since the dedication, the center has been home to hundreds of BYU students and faculty. The center has also employed many Israeli and Palestinian workers over the years according to a 2016 BYU devotional from David Whitchurch.
Kaye Terry Hanson served as the associate director at the Jerusalem Center in the 1990s. During a 2002 devotional, she said that everyone she knew in the Holy Land sought peace.
“In the Jerusalem Center we employed both Israeli and Palestinian workers. They worked side by side—respectfully, for the most part; hopefully; and with responsibility,” Hanson said. “That microcosm of Holy Land society leads me to believe—to hope—that there is a solution to the anger between the two peoples.”