Franciscan expert says U.S. strikes in Syria may further inflame region.
MIAMI | A Franciscan priest-expert on Mideast Christianity and 30-year resident of the Holy Land said his Christian counterparts in the region worry U.S. strikes in Syria would further inflame a situation where many nations ply for influence.
American-born Father Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, is kicking off a 13-city tour in the U.S. to talk about the ongoing challenges for Palestinian and other Christians living in the Middle East. The foundation supports Christians there through scholarships and humanitarian projects.
The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land has enabled some 235 economically-needy Christian youths — such as the one pictured here — to obtain bachelors and often master’s degrees through scholarships to places like Bethlehem University in the West Bank.
But Father Vasko also expects to be getting a lot of questions about the deteriorating situation in Syria and possible U.S. intervention there in the coming weeks. Christian leaders in the Middle East have expressed serious concerns about the possibility. Pope Francis has called for a prayer vigil and day of fasting for peace at St. Peter’s Square on Saturday, Sept. 7.
“The concern is that if the U.S. does start military operations in Syria then Iran will try to do something in Israel and set off a bloody chain of events, that it could be a powder keg,” Father Vasko told The Florida Catholic Sept. 5 by telephone.
“The pope’s recent passionate appeal for the Church universal to join him in prayer on Saturday is uplifting and reflects his spirituality, love and mercy along with his sense of justice and peace,” Father Vasko said.
“If somebody has to speak out, who better than the pontiff. My worry is that the previous appeals for peace from the pontiffs sometimes fall on deaf ears but it is our moral obligation to join him in prayer (so) that this (situation regarding Syria) doesn’t spin out of control.”
Twice a year, Father Vasko travels to the U.S. to meet with supporters of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and to invite their financial and other support for Christian young people there, so they can live meaningful and productive lives in their places of birth and not emigrate.
Having spent 27 years in Jerusalem, Father Vasko said he is aware of the struggles that the Christians of the Holy Land experience on a daily basis. During this time of sectarian conflicts among Muslims, political upheaval and terror in places such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the Christian populations have paid a heavy price, he said.
Christian families have frequently sided with either government or opposition forces and therefore made no friends. They were sometimes killed. Because of that fear they now keep a low profile and avoid taking sides. In many case, they flee, Father Vasko said.
“Our monastery in the Suez was blown up (in August) and luckily there were no friars there at the time.”
The message he is hearing from leaders of other Catholic and Christian communities in the Holy Land region is to stand firm, don’t depart.
“Our friars in Syria are always in danger and don’t know what will happen, but they are fearless. They are there for the people and other denominations say the same thing: They have to be there in peaceful times and in times of war, to remain and persevere and say ‘we are here to suffer and die with you, if need be.’
“That takes some courage from religious denominations throughout the Middle East,” Father Vasko said.
He started his U.S. visit in New York and Columbus, Ohio, for the “Cradling Christianity” dinner and auction Sept. 5. Florida’s Venice Bishop Frank Dewane, a member of the Holy Land foundation’s board of trustees, was the keynote speaker. Father Vasko plans to visit donors throughout Florida in the coming weeks before attending a Vatican embassy dinner on Oct. 12 in Washington D.C.
Over the years, the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land has enabled some 235 economically-needy Christian youths to obtain bachelors and often master’s degrees through scholarships to places like Bethlehem University in the West Bank, Hebrew University, Birzeit University near Ramallah, Technion University, Jordan University in Amman and two other institutions in Beirut, Lebanon and Cairo, Egypt.
About 130 of those youths now are employed professionally in the region as business administrators, lawyers, attorneys, engineers and accountants, while others have settled into family life full time.
Only one graduate has migrated to the U.S. All the scholarship applicants must be Christian, in need of economic assistance and pledge to live and work in the Holy Land upon graduation.
“It is a small dent (in the migration of Christians) and an effort which started 14 years ago. Now those graduates are contributing to scholarships for other students and that is what we want: We want that response of giving back,” Father Vasko said. “They were economically marginalized and have been given an opportunity by the Church as an incentive to stay.”
In addition, the foundation supports other scholarship recipients through vocational trade school and middle school programs in a region where $6,000 can support a full year of high-quality university education for each student.
“Education is the key to keeping the Christians there and even retired Pope Benedict XVI talked about the need for higher education here,” Father Vasko said. “And we have humanitarian programs, sporting programs, in Gaza, Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, to help young people deal with the stress and trauma that comes up there.”
The priest said he has found that more and more Catholics are becoming familiar with the work of stemming the Christian exodus in the Holy Land. But he concedes that the problem is not going to fully disappear. There are approximately 150,000 Christians living in the Holy Land. Due to severe political and economic hardships, an estimated 500 Christian families leave the region each year.
Himself a popular priest guide in the Holy Land, Father Vasko keeps a keen sense of humor about his challenges. He said he is planning to help identify and train a successor in the coming years as he looks toward retirement.
He said U.S. pilgrimages to Israel have been strong this year but that naturally the prospect of a U.S. strike in Syria may give travelers concerns about their safety in the region.
He hopes Pope Francis’s prayer vigil and the prayers of Christians around the world will have an impact on the outcome of Syria’s civil war.
“It is important for all of us to get together in prayer on this and it is needed, is refreshing and uplifting. The pope is saying, ‘Lets do something,’ really actively engaging our people and for me that is who this pontiff is, and with prayer all things are possible.
“We are a people of hope and divine providence; we have to wait and see what the results are,” Father Vasko said.
A group of Bethlehem University students talk on campus. The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land gives scholarships to Christian students to encourage them to stay in the native land rather than emigrate to other countries.