Keeping Christians in the Holy Land

By Joy Batteh-Freiha

November-December 2013  St. Augustine Catholic

Thousands of miles away, news reports of increasing anti-Christian violence from burned churches and monasteries, to kidnappings and murder of priest and religious, terror plagues the approximately 150,000 Christians living in the Holy Land, and others in countries throughout the Middle East.

In September, Pope Francis called on Catholics to participate in a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria and other areas experiencing turmoil in the region.

Doing their part to help alleviate the struggles Christians in the Middle East face every day, and preserve the faith of the early church, are two organizations within the Catholic Church.

The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land is a worldwide ecumenical Christian organization founded in 1994. Support for the foundation comes from the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.

Their main purpose is to safeguard the presence of Christianity in the Holy Land, protect the fundamental rights of the Christian Palestinian minority, and to provide resources that help the poor and unemployed meet their basic human needs.

The mission is bigger than helping individuals and families; it is necessary to maintain the Christian heritage in this land where Jesus was born, lived and died,” said Fr. Peter Vasko, a Franciscan Friar and president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land in a recent publication.

Father Vasko has experienced firsthand, the daily struggles of Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land, having spent 27 years in Jerusalem.

“Without Christians in the Holy Land, the church will never be the same. The roots will be gone so how could the branches continue on? We must give a sense of hope to our fellow Christians; we must give them the means to stay.”

Another organization deeply rooted in the Holy Land is the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (EOHS)

Tracing their origins to the first crusade, when its leader, Godfrey de Bouillon, liberated Jerusalem from Muslim control and formed the Order of Canons of the Holy Sepulchre to protect and organize the religious and military interests of the region, the EOHSJ is a lay, religious organization of men (Knights) and women (Dames) led by U. S. Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Today, with chapters/sections in 50 countries and approximately 23,000 members worldwide, they remain true to the mission of their early founders to protect, preserve and support Christianity in the Holy Land.

“Our charter, as given to us by the Holy Father is to strengthen in our members the practice of Christian life, and we are called to be witnesses to others in this regard,” said H.E. Patrick D. Powers, KGCHS (Knight of the Grand Cross) and vice governor general of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in North America. “Also, we are to sustain and aid in charitable, educational and social works and institutions of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land particularly those of and in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.”

In 2009, the Holy Father asked us to expand our work to include projects in Egypt and Lebanon – lands also touched by the footsteps of Jesus Mary and Joseph” said Powers. “To date we have contributed to a few projects in those countries and more recently in helping relief efforts of Syrian refugees.”