Exodus from the Holy Land

Franciscan Friars Work to Hold Palestinian Christians

If the severe political and economic hardships experienced by Christians living in the Holy Land are not alleviated soon, the Christian church could cease to exist in this part of the world within the next 60 years, said Fa ther Peter Vasko.

Father Vasko is president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, whose purpose is to safeguard the basic human rights of the Palestinian Christian minority living in the Holy Land. He spoke to congregations at St. Patrick Cathedral in Charlotte Feb. 18-19.

Approximately 150,000 Christians currently live in the Holy Land. Only 11,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, a city of more than 600,000 citizens.

“Holy Land” is a religious term for the region east of the Mediterranean Sea that is sacred, in varying degrees, to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Geographically, it corresponds to the modern state of Israel, and the Palestinian and occupied territories.

Christians living in the area that was known in biblical times as Palestine are known as Palestinian Christians.

“In 1900, 13.2 percent of the population in the Holy Land was Christian,” Fa ther Vasko said. “Today it’s less than two percent in Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.”

Thirty-five years ago, the population of Bethlehem was 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim. Today, the city ofChrist’s birth is 91 percent Muslim and 9 percent Christian.

For these Christians trapped in a hostile environment of ethnic distrust, the Franciscan Foundation is the only organized voice for justice and positive change, said Fa ther Vasko.

No reason to stay

According to the foundation’s Web site, inadequate housing, high unemployment and greatly reduced educational opportunities are causing widespread suffering and a mass exodus of the Christian population from the Holy Land.

The goal of the foundation is to raise $30 million to create job opportunities for Christians by providing training for positions in schools, churches, parish centers and medical facilities; and by providing academic scholarships for talented but underprivileged Christian students.

As of December 2002, the foundation has given more than 60 scholarships and four educational grants amounting to $1 million.

The foundation is also building 500 subsidized housing units for Christian families and restoring the tomb of Jesus inthe Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Caught in the middle

For the last 40 years, Palestinian Christians have been caught in the middle of an intense religious and ethnic power struggle.

“The Israeli government looks upon them as Palestinians, therefore the enemy,” Fa ther Vasko said. “To Muslims,they are traitors and pro-West.”

The united States provides aid money to the Israeli government and to the Palestinian Authority, but none of this money goes to Palestinian Christians, Fa ther Vasko said.

“They have no major resources or organizations helping them, and they are the ones who are leaving,” he said.“We’re trying to provide motivations and incentives for our young Christians to stay.”

More hardships were inflicted on all Palestinians with the construction of the 480-mile barrier across Israel. Although it was built to keep both Israelis and Palestinians safe, 320,000 people lost their jobs because they can no longer crossthe border to their jobs into major cities. A great many of those affected are Christian, said Fa ther Vasko.

A relative peace

Despite persistent violence throughout much of the Middle East, Fa ther Vasko said members of the three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – live in relative peace in the Holy Land.

“There really is no persecution of one religion against the o ther,” Fa ther Vasko said. Ra ther the violence is politically based.

“The political situation has polarized the people against one ano ther,” he said. “If we don’t do something soon, we could have no one visiting our religious monuments and museums or worshipping at our churches.”

Fa ther Vasko said that, despite what people might read and see in the news, it is quite safe to visit the Holy Land.

“All the holy sites of Christendom are in East Jerusalem,” he said. The attacks that dotake place occur in the Jewish section of West Jerusalem.

“When you go on pilgrimage, you’re coming to seek the Lord,” said Fa ther Vasko. “I’ve lead pilgrimages in the Holy Land for 21 years, and there’s never been even one pilgrim who has been the victim of an attack.”

Fa ther Vasko said the Catholics of North Carolina can help Palestinian Christians by praying for peace among thethree religions of the Holy Land.

Christians in the Holy Land need to know that their western counterparts care about what happens to them, Fa ther Vasko said.

“Palestinian Christians feel invisible to the West,” said Fa ther Vasko. “By coming to the Holy Land, you’re giving them economic and moral support.”

Written by Karen A. Evans

Staff Writer