The plight of Christians in the Holy Land dates to the days of the first Apostles of Christ. Today, the conditions for Christians have only marginally improved, as this minority population struggles to keep a foothold where the Church was founded.
One person who knows firsthand about the plight of Christians in the Holy Land is Father Peter F. Vasko, Order of Friars Minor, President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL). Father Vasko was in the Diocese of Venice for a Foundation meeting in mid-March and shared his thoughts about the greatest threat to the Christians who remain and what can be done to help them stay.
“The Foundation is attempting to stem the Christian exodus from the Holy Land,” Father Vasko explained. “These people have been the guardians of Christianity for centuries. Sadly, the Mother Church of Christianity in Jerusalem is dying. Without that Church, the rest of the churches of the world would not exist. We are all called to help them. If we don’t have a sense of who we are as Christians, the roots and the heritage and the desire to preserve them, then how can we call ourselves followers of Christ?”
There are approximately 150,000 Palestinian Christians living in the Holy Land out of an overall population of 9 million. This fact makes them a minority and oppressed for being Christian in a predominately Jewish region, and being considered pro-West and traitors to the Islamic cause among Palestinians.
“These facts lead to an inability to acquire regular employment in certain parts of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They have no freedom of mobility or a universal right for a freedom to worship,” Father Vasko said. “They are being squeezed out. They are used to suffering their whole lives as a minority within a minority. The concept of the cross is part of their daily life and they accept that.”
All hope is not lost, he continued. The Foundation has a scholarship program for young men and women who want to earn degrees in professional fields that are in demand, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers. A newer program for those who want to learn a trade, such as a mechanic, a plumber or a chef, is also in place.
“The economic reality is that the typical non-skilled Christian earns one-quarter of what others do ($6,000 per year versus $24,000). Having a university degree or a trade gives them a reason to stay, a reason for hope,” Father Vasko said.
Donations to the Foundation help this effort and have had tremendous success with nearly 150 graduates in a few short years. The total cost of a four-year degree at the best university in Jerusalem is $24,000 — less than what most students in the U.S. pay for one year of private college.
Father Vasko credits the guidance of the Foundation board, and in particular Board member Bishop Frank J. Dewane, in guiding the efforts of the Foundation into stemming the exodus of the Christians from the Holy Land.
“Bishop Dewane has been at the forefront in these efforts,” he said. “Without his support, and the support of people from the Diocese of Venice and across the country, the Foundation would not be able to do what it does.”
While the political situation remains difficult for Christians, the Foundation continues to work to find solutions to help give them a reason to stay. Franciscans have been stewards of the Holy Land for more than 800 years.
“There is a sense of hope among Christians in the Holy Land,” Father Vasko explains. “They feel they have a duty to stay. We are helping them to make that decision easier.”
Other programs of the Foundation which help Christians in the Holy Land include an orphanage, boy’s home and grammar school assistance, among other things. The most important aspect of the mission is continuing to ensure the Sacraments remain accessible.