As Catholic New York was going to press with this issue, the Vatican called its seven nuncios based in the Middle East to Rome for a three-day summit, beginning Oct. 2, to assess the situation in those troubled lands. Pope Francis is expected to greet them and then they will meet with Vatican officials.
Times have never been easy for Christians in the Middle East, and recent months have been more disturbing than ever. Earlier this summer, terrorist threats by the Islamic State (ISIS) pushed Iraqi Christians from homes where some of their ancestors have lived for the better part of two millennia.
In Gaza, the tiny Christian community of approximately 2,500 people was caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas, which thankfully are observing a ceasefire. Though the hostilities have stopped for the moment, there is no cause for celebration.
Even in such fraught times, not all is dark. In fact, last week I had a chance to speak with Father Peter Vasko, O.F.M., a New York-born Franciscan priest who invoked the motto of The Christophers when describing his work on behalf of Christians in the Holy Land.
“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” he told me during a phone call while he was in Manhattan renewing friendships and visiting with benefactors.
The friar has served as president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL) for all but the first two years of its 20-year history. The assignment brings him stateside for about three months each year, with the balance of his time spent in Jerusalem. The mission of FFHL is “to provide programs and projects that will serve as incentives for the Christians to remain as well as safeguarding the rights of the Christian Palestinian minority living in the Holy Land.”
FFHL accomplishes this goal in many ways. One is by providing college scholarships to young Christians. The numbers add up to 296 students who have benefited from their studies at such prestigious schools as Bethlehem University, run by the Christian Brothers, and Hebrew University, which Father Vasko touted as “Israel’s Yale.”
The program is working very well, with about 85 percent of graduates getting jobs as professionals, with most of the remaining 15 percent being young women who have chosen to get married. The best part of the whole enterprise, Father Vasko explained, is that these recent graduates stay in the Holy Land, where Christians are desperately needed. Just one of the 296 students who has received a scholarship from FFHL has left the region.
Without such a program, and a similar one supporting students who are learning vocational trades, many of the graduates would have already gone to the United States, Canada or South America, he said. Instead, they are putting down roots.
One great way the foundation builds support for its scholarship program is through pilgrimages Father Vasko leads five times annually in the Holy Land. The journeys feature five days in Jerusalem and three days in Galilee. Pilgrims get the opportunity to meet young people and learn about their lives. Those gatherings are often the seed for future cooperation in the foundation’s scholarship efforts.
“They’ve become my constituency,” he said of the pilgrims. “They see the situation and want to become actively involved.”
The Franciscans have been at their work and ministry in the Middle East for some 800 years, since St. Francis himself traveled there. At the end of our talk, I asked Father Vasko whether he was optimistic about the future of Christians in the Holy Land. Although the programs supported by FFHL are small in scale, they give people hope, he said.
“We’re seeing some very successful results, thanks to God’s intervention and his plan for the foundation in helping to maintain the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”