A Franciscan organization led by a native New Yorker is investing heavily in education as the best tool to stem the steady exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.
Father Peter Vasko, O.F.M., president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land said the 150,000 Christians now living in Israel and Palestine are a dwindling presence. They comprise only two percent of the population of the land where Jesus was born and carried out his earthly ministry, down from 18 percent in 1948.
In a Sept. 25 phone interview with Catholic New York while he was in New York, Father Vasko said Christians are not persecuted, but severe political and economic hardship and an undercurrent of ethnic discrimination cause hundreds of Christian families to emigrate from the Holy Land every year. Christians also have smaller families compared to their neighbors, which contributes to the population imbalance.
A practical result of the departures is shrinking Mass attendance, although Christians are free to worship, Father Vasko said.
Half of the Christians in the Holy Land are Roman Catholics, and the remainder are Eastern Rite Catholics in union with Rome and Orthodox Christians, he said.
Most of the Christians living in the Holy Land are of Palestinian descent. On average, 75 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty level. Unemployment is high and is exacerbated by politically motivated closures of routes between Palestinian residential areas and Israeli areas where Palestinians work or trade, Father Vasko said.
More than $5 billion in annual foreign aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority “never trickles down to Christians. It goes to Muslims or Jews. Palestinian Christians have no major organization supporting them,” he said.
According to Father Vasko, the Israeli government cut its support for Catholic schools. At one time, it covered 60 percent of the Catholic schools budget, and now contributes 30 percent.
The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land was established in 1994 to help Christians stay in their homeland. It raises about $2 million each year. Father Vasko said the group provides housing, employment and humanitarian assistance to those in need. Nonetheless, its primary focus is education.
“Both St. John Paul and Pope Benedict told me education is the key to keeping Christians in the Holy Land,” Father Vasko said. The foundation supports primary, secondary, vocational and university education for students from economically marginalized families.
“We’re building up leadership and hope for the future,” he said.
After living in the Holy Land for more than 30 years, Father Vasko does not expect to see an end to conflict. “Thousands and thousands of Jews and Arabs have passed on hatred and mistrust to their children and their children’s children. It has become embedded in their psychological DNA, and there will never be peace,” he said.
“There have been 16 peace accords since I’ve been in the Holy Land! Neither side trusts the other, and no one wants to implement the plan. Cooperation is deteriorating,” he added.
“In spite of all the political turmoil, we are helping Christians. Since 1997, we’ve provided four-year university scholarships to 380 students and only one of them left the Holy Land. We’re giving Christians hope,” Father Vasko said.
Father Vasko urged Catholic New Yorkers to pray for Christians caught in the middle of conflict. He also invited them to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “a place of intersection with the divine.” He assured readers that it is safe to travel with people who know the area.
Father Vasko leads two pilgrimages each year and travels extensively to promote the work of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. He entered the seminary with a professional background in public relations and marketing. “I planned to pray, but God pulled me back in to market for God and his people,” he said.