Franciscans: Holy Land Christians Need Help

Foundation asks U.S. Catholics to support ‘Church of Jerusalem’

April 2, 2006 The Catholic New World

Franciscan Father Peter Vasko was a marketing executive before feeling that he was called to something different.

Now president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, Vasko, an imposing New Jersey native, finds himself trying to sell an idea: The need to support Christians living in the Holy Land.

The Foundation is a creation of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which has been present in the area for 1,300 years and now administers 74 Christian Holy Sites.

The Custody benefits from annual Good Friday collections in U.S. Catholic churches, but that money is not available to help the dwindling population of Arab Christians who have lived in the Holy Land since the first century, Vasko said.

“This is where the Church began. Without the Church of Jerusalem, there would be no Church of Chicago or New York or Los Angeles or Berlin. The Church is not the building – it’s the living, worshipping community. Of course you want to maintain and preserve that heritage.”

The heritage is threatened, he said, by the ongoing and intractable conflict between the Israelis and mostly Muslim Palestinians. While both groups generally respect the Christian holy sites and Christian pilgrims, Israelis see local Christians as Palestinians, and thus as a threat, Palestinian Muslims see the Christians in their midst as having turned away from Islam and toward the West, Vasko said. While the United States gives or has given aid both toIsrael and the Palestinian Authority, little if any trickles down to the Christian community.

That’s why the portion of the population that identifies itself as Christian has dropped from 13 percent in 1900 to less than 2 percent of what Jews do in Israel.

The Foundation was founded 10 years ago to give the Franciscans a way to respond to your Christians who asked for help paying for college or finding jobs or housing, Vasko said.

In the Foundation’s first decade, it has offered college scholarships to 86 Christian students. Of 40 who have graduated, 65 percent have jobs, he said. They are dentists, bankers and engineers, and they will help thecommunity grow.

“We are trying to provide incentives for these young people to stay,” he said. Without young educated professionals,the situation would be dire, Vasko said. Of the 150,000 Christians who remain, about half are likely to leave no matter what support they are offered because they have connections in other countries.

“We’re focusing on those who stay,” Vasko said, “But we have to work through the generosity of American Catholics. They don’t have anyone else to turn to.”

To persuade people of the need, Vasko encourages American Catholics to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land either through the Foundation or other organizations. But if they do travel to the Holy Land, Catholics should make sure to use Christian service providers, he said. That benefits the Christian community economically, and it is also good forthe pilgrims, because their guides know and share their faith, he said.

While he understands that the political situation might frighten some travelers, he said the Franciscans have never had a pilgrim harmed in the 21 years he has been there, through both Intifadas and both Gulf Wars.

“Going on pilgrimage is like an immigrant going back to her motherland,” said Vasko, who will guide a group of pilgrims from Chicago, led by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who will be in the Holy Land during Holy Week this year. “It’s living the mysteries of the rosary.”

By Michelle Martin
Staff Writer