“The Southern Cross”
Palestinian Christians feel “ignored and abandoned by the Christian West,” according to Father Peter Vasko, OFM, President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land.
Father Vasko, in San Diego during a recent fundraising effort, told The Southern Cross that only about 150,000 Christians are left in the Holy Land. If Christians worldwide fail to address the reasons for the dwindling numbers, he said, Christianity might be extinguished in the birthplace of its divine founder within the next 60 years.
“It looks kind of bleak,” Father Vasko said. “If they leave, all we’re going to have are empty religious monuments and museums – no living, worshipping community.”
For almost 800 years, the Franciscans have preserved and protected some of the region’s most sacred Christian shrines. With the formation of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land in 1994, the order has worked aggressively to address the economic and political hardships of Palestinian Christians, in an effort to reverse what Father Vasko describes as their mass “exodus.”
According to Father Vasko, Palestinian Christians – about half of whom are Latin or Melkite Catholics – earn disproportionately smaller incomes than their Israeli and Palestinian Muslim neighbors. While financial aid is awarded to both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, he said, “None of that money ever trickles down to theChristian Palestinians. They are caught between a rock and a hard place, between the hammer and the anvil, economically speaking.”
The Christian population’s economic woes have been exacerbated by political trends throughout the volatile region, according to Father Vasko.
In addition to these problems, he said, Palestinian Christians are not only viewed with distrust by both Israelis and Palestinian Muslims, but be believes, they are forgotten by most of the world’s Christians, who are almost completely unaware of their existence.
“The Christians have been there since the early second century,” Father Vasko said. “They’ve been the guardians of Christianity.”
Catholic dioceses across the globe hold an annual Good Friday collection to raise funds for the Church in the Holy Land. In 2005, the Diocese of San Diego’s collection alone raised $84,850. Father Vasko explained that much of that money is earmarked for the renovation and general upkeep of various sanctuaries and schools, as well as theoperating expenses of the Franciscan fairies.
The Foundation was established to address the needs of individual Palestinian Christians for a college education, employment and housing. A task committee quickly established that many of the younger Palestinian Christians were willing to remain in the Holy Land if these three issues were adequately addressed.
Today, foundation scholarships send Christians to top-tier Middle Eastern universities, which prepare them for satisfying professional careers upon graduation; meanwhile, the foundation has built more than 600 housing units.
The future success of the foundation’s work depends on the support of Christians.
Father Vasko told the Southern Cross that U.S. Catholics can aid Palestinian Christians in several ways, such as praying for peace in the troubled region, providing the Foundation with much-needed financial resources and even making a pilgrimage.
“Let me tell you, it is very safe, Father Vasko said, brushing aside much of the media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as exploitative, sensationalistic and untrue. During several pilgrimages, which he guided, theFranciscan priest said pilgrims were shocked by the incongruity between news coverage and their own experiences.
Because Palestinian Christians depend heavily on the revenue generated by Christian pilgrims, they were hit hard when a renewed terrorist effort against Israel Frightened away potential Christian pilgrims from 2000 to 2004.