If the violence and government controls in the Middle East continue, within the next 60 years, there may be no Christians left in the Holy Land.
The ongoing violence in the Middle East between Islamic fundamentalists and the state of Israel has for years shaken diplomatic relations, torn apart families, shattered economies and shredded dreams of peace-loving Christian, Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. The end result has been the constant migration of Christian Palestinians for far-reaching corners of the world. And if the violence continues, predicted Father Peter Vasko, OFM, within 60 years there will be no Christians remaining in the very spot where Christ formed the Catholic Church, more than 2,000 years ago.
Father Vasko addressed more than 60 people at a Lenten soup supper at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Winter Park. The event was sponsored by Pax Christi Orland. Father Vasko serves as president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, a non-profit organization committed to restoration and safekeeping of the holy sites in Jerusalem, as well as safeguarding the basic human rights and continued presence of the Christian Palestinian minority living in the Holy Land.
“(The Foundation works to) provide incentives for them to continue living there, such as academic scholarships, subsidized housing and employment opportunities for Christians trapped in a hostile environment of ethnic distrust,” he explained.
Father Vasko’s interest in the Holy Land is indeed very personal: he has called Jerusalem home for nearly 20 years. His desire to live in the birthplace of Christianity was first sparked in the late 1970’s when, as a successful public relations and marketing executive for the hospitality industry, he made a couple of weekend trips to a Trappist Monastery in Conyers, GA, looking to “fill that empty space” in his soul. One day, on a retreat, he saw a Jerusalem Bible and a five-fold Crusader’s cross.
“It was like having a knife cutting through me,” he recalled. “I knew I was destined to go to Jerusalem.”
He entered the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in 1981 and was ordained in 1987.
“I consider it an honor to receive a vocation to work in the Holy Land, and minister in the same place that Jesus Christ himself preached. “It’s so very powerful and meaningful,” he said.
Twice a year, for six weeks at a time, Father Vasko travels the globe, appealing to Christians worldwide to support the Foundation, which in the past five years has awarded more that $1 million in scholarships to 70 young, academically inclined Christian students to study within their country. Fifty percent of the graduates have gone on to careers in architecture, engineering, pharmaceuticals, business or teaching: the remaining 50 percent – the women- have returned to their traditional places in the home. The Foundation is also committed to helping with housing, and is constructing 250 apartments. The first phase, representing 90 units, has been completed, and students now have a place to live after receiving their degrees and obtaining employment.
But the success stories are the exception to the rule. Due to soaring unemployment rates (85 percent for West Bank and Gaza Christians and Muslims, compared to 7 percent for Israelis) and rampant poverty (annual income of $3,000 to $4,000 versus Israel’s average of $24,000 to $26,000), Palestinian Christians are leaving in record numbers.
And although Israel and the Palestinian authority receive billions of dollars in foreign aid – much from the Untied States – “very little trickles down to Christian Palestinians,” said Father Vasko.
According to statistics gathered by the Foundation, roughly 8.6 million people currently reside in Israel; 4.6 million are Jewish, 3.9 million are Muslim, with 115,000 Christians currently residing in Israel proper, and an additional 35,000 in the West Bank and Gaza, not presently considered part of the State of Israel. Those numbers are significant, as the great majority of the Israeli budget allotted for Christians – nearly 98 percent – is disbursed to those living inside the border. Those outside receive barely 2 percent of the monies, a number which Father Vasko says continues to decline.
Sharply critical of the Israeli government for using a military presence to close certain territories effectively cutting off Palestinians from access to medical services, employment, education and even food, Father Vasko is outraged by a “security wall” currently under construction by Israel that “cuts social and economic ties, effectively ‘ghettoizing’ areas not belonging to Israel.”
The 428 mile-long, barbed-wire-laced wall, twice as long and three times as high as the Berlin Wall, is being constructed at a cost of more than $3.5 million per mile and is “effectively splitting the very heart of the Palestinian world around the West Bank,” said Father Vasko.
When completed, 10 percent of Palestinian land will fall under Israeli control; presently more than 41,000 acres of Palestinian land has been affected, cutting some 72,000 inhabitants off from their own property as well as much-needed services.
“It’s a dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about. You won’t find it in The New York Times, or the Boston Globe.” Father Vasko said. “You read about suicide bombings carried out by a small number of terrorists, and retaliation bombings by the Israeli government, (the majority of )Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims alike, are just like you and me and are getting a bum rap because of these terrible people.”
“Israelis look at Palestinians as a dangerous enemy,” he added. “In their eyes), to be a Palestinian is to be a Muslim; hence Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place, between a hammer and an anvil.”
Father Vasko, who serves as a liaison and guide for the White House through the U.S. Embassy and as chaplain for the U.S. Marine Security Guard for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, encourages all Catholics in the United States to support their brethren in the Middle East both through pilgrimages (he leads them twice a year) and donations.
“Christians in the Holy Land feel abandoned by Christians in the West. At what price do you punish an entire people because of the acts of a few dozen terrorists,” he asked. “Don’t put innocent people in jeopardy merely because they are Palestinians.”
His message is simple: “Become God’s instrument for those in the Holy Land desperately seeking help. Without Christians in Jerusalem, the Church will never be the same. If we have no sense or appreciation of who we are and where we came form, how can we call ourselves Christians?”
The Florida Catholic
April 1, 2004
By Linda Buckley