Help for Holy Land Christians

March 31, 2006 The Leaven – Kansas City

Father Peter Vasko, OFM, came to the archdiocese on a rescue mission. Not that anyone in the archdiocese was in trouble – or at least the kind of trouble for which they needed help from a Franciscan from the Holy Land.

Rather, Father Peter was here on March 22 because the mother Church of all Christians is in crisis, and possibly even in danger of dying out. If something isn’t done quickly, this land – where Jesus was born, crucified, died and rose from the dead – will have no Christians.

All Christians have an obligation to support the Holy Land Christians, said Father Peter, director of development forthe 800 year-old Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and president of the 10 year-old Franciscan Foundation for theHoly Land.

“Without the mother Church of Jerusalem, there would be no Church here in Kansas City, Miami, Berlin, or London,” he said. “We owe everything to the mother Church. And without the mother Church, we are nothing.

“Our Church is dying; it’s falling apart, it needs to be rebuilt, and we need the help of American Catholics to continue to support those programs that help maintain the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

The archdiocese was one of Father Peter’s stops during a seven-week tour of the United States. His mission is to find funding and other support for the programs of the Custody and Foundation.

Ten years ago, the Custody founded the Foundation to offer programs that would encourage Holy Land Christians to stay in their native land, and thus continue to be the “living stones” of the Church there.

The Christian population of the Holy Land – Israel proper and the Palestinian and Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip – has been in decline for many years, said Father Peter. Thirty-five years ago, Bethlehem was 80 percent Christian. Today, it’s 91 percent Muslim.

Today, the total Christian population of these Israeli and Palestinian areas is approximately 150,000 – mainly Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Latin-and Eastern-rite Melkite Catholics, and a few others. Of this number, approximately 75,000 are Catholic (almost half Eastern –rite Melkite Catholics, and the other half Latin-rite Catholics). Protestants – mostly foreigners living in these territories – number about 4,000. In Jerusalem alone, there are only 11,000 Christians.

The drop in the Christian population in the Holy Land is the result of many factors, but the main ones are discrimination and the lack of economic opportunity. On average, Holy Land Christians – mostly Arabs – are better educated than their Arab Muslim compatriots, and are thus more apt to seek a better future among family members overseas.

“The Christians are the ones who are caught in the middle,” said Father Peter. “The Israeli government looks upon Christians as Arabs, as Palestinians, and is suspicious [of them]. And their Palestinian Muslim neighbors look uponthem as pro-West and traitors to the cause of Islam. So, they’re kind of caught between the hammer and the anvil. That’s why we became the first organization 10 years ago to have this three-pronged approach.”

That three-pronged approach is: to subsidize the education of marginalized Christians of any denomination; assistthem in securing employment; and help them find housing in the Holy Land.

“To stem the Christian exodus, the approach continues to be to provide marginalized young people with a college education, to those that are academically inclined,” said Father Peter. “After they graduate, we help them find employment, and after employment, [acquire] housing in the units that we are building in Jerusalem and the West Bank, especially Bethlehem.

Over the past 10 years the Foundation has awarded 86 scholarships (approximately 12 a year) to young Christians at a cost of $1.3 million. The students attend Bethlehem University, Hebrew University, and Beit Zeir University. Of the40 who have graduated so far, most have professional jobs as engineers, pharmacists, teachers, dentists and architects.

“We also give educational grants for music and vocational schools,” he said. “So we’re trying to cover a number of areas.”

The average cost of a college education for a young Holy Land Christian is about $25,000, or roughly $6,000 a year. One way American donors are helping these Christians is through direct sponsorships.

Even with an education, job, housing, Holy Land Christians still face difficulties. Christians have been evicted from Muslim-owned apartments in Bethlehem because they have displayed a crucifix or picture of Jesus. Conversely, their lives are complicated on their way to work, school or home by Israeli security measures like “Security/Separation Wall/Fence.”

Despite these and other daunting challenges, Father Peter and many Holy Land Christians now have hope because of the Foundation’s work.

“The Church is falling down in the Holy Land, and we need to repair our Church,” said Father Peter. “So I ask people, “Will you be an instrument of hope to these young Christians who have no one to turn to, no hope, and no vehicle to tell their problems?”

“The Foundation has been that platform that lobby. Thank God, the generosity of American Catholics has been tremendous and is growing.”

Wanted: Pilgrims

The years of the second Intifada, a period of Palestinian-led violence between 2000 and 2004, was a difficult time for Holy Land Christians.

During this time the number of Christian pilgrims dropped dramatically – and thus caused economic hardship for theFranciscan Custody of the Holy Land and the many Holy Land Christians who depended upon the revenues derived from pilgrim activity.

Many pilgrims stayed away because they feared that they would experience the Intifada’s violence. They needn’t have worried, said Father Peter.

“I’d urge your readers to come to pilgrimages [to the Holy Land],” he said. “You will give moral support [to Holy Land Christians] by being there.”

As for tourist safety, everything depends on location he said. All the major Christian shrines are in East Jerusalem, and the attacks have taken place in West Jerusalem. Often, incidents are described as happening “near” Jerusalem, but they could actually be many miles away, with Jerusalem being used as a reference point for readers or viewers.

“I’ve been guiding [pilgrims] for 21 years, and I’ve had six pilgrimages this year with about 200 Americans,” said Father Peter. “They say at the end, “Where are all the problems?” I say “I’ve been saying that for years, and nobody believes me. Go and tell your people that it is safe to come to the Holy Land.”

“It’s not just a pious thing. The Lord takes care of you. You’re not coming here as a tourist, you’re coming here to seek the Lord, those holy places that you heard about from the pulpit when the priest was preaching. And now you’rethere, and the Lord always takes care of His pilgrims.”

In all his years of leading pilgrimages on tours of the Holy Land, Father Peter said, not a single one of his pilgrims has ever been injured.

Identity Question

Americans who are unfamiliar with the Holy Land are easily confused by the notion of a Palestinian Arab, said Father Peter. But there are actual three aspects of identity to consider.

The race of these individuals is Arab, their nationality is Palestinian, and their religion is either Christian or Muslim. An Arab might be a Lebanese Christian or Muslim, or a Jordanian Christian or Muslim. An Arab might even be an Israeli Christian or Muslim.

Hamas Gains Power

Many people outside of the Middle East were surprised when Hamas – a Palestinian Islamic movement, considered a terrorist organization by the United States – achieved significant victories in the January Palestinian election.

“Let me tell you, they did not win because the people voted for them based on Islamic ideology. No, not at all,” said Father Peter. “The reason they won is because over the past 12 years, Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority, did nothing for the people. There was no infrastructure. No schools were built. No roads were paved. No houses were built. Where did the money go? It went into government salaries and expenditures-corruption on the part of theminister who took millions and millions and put them into Swiss bank accounts.”

Meanwhile, Hamas developed an extensive charitable network. When it came time to vote, the Palestinians – desperate, angry and beholden – voted for Hamas.

But here’s something Father Peter wants Americans to know: Hamas is limited. Of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Parliament, Hamas holds 74, and nine of those office holders are in Israeli prisons. That leaves the Hamas bloc with 65 votes – short of the 88 votes needed for a veto override.

Father Peter hopes that the Hamas’ election wins won’t deter the European Union and the United States from funding relief efforts conducted by non-governmental organizations.

“Obviously, [Hamas] has to renounce in its charter the destruction of Israel,” he said. How can you negotiate with a partner if you’re calling for their destruction? No, that’s a definite.”

By Joe Bollig
Staff Writer