The Holy Land without Christians? Franciscans bolster dwindling minority

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Father Peter Vasko, OFM. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

FORT WORTH — As the Franciscans prepare to celebrate the 800th anniversary of their arrival in the Holy Land, the order’s effort to keep the Christian faith alive in the places where it was born has never been more important — or challenging.

In neighboring Syria, the ongoing civil war scattered the population especially in the city of Aleppo, once home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East. The Franciscans struggle to maintain parishes in that city as well as Damascus and outlying regions.

“Bombs completely destroyed the church in Aleppo and our school was hit by mortars,” said Father Peter Vasko, OFM, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL). “In outlying areas, militants fighting against (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad came into our churches and took down the crucifixes. Women were told to wear veils and there could be no ringing of bells.”

One Iraqi friar was kidnapped twice and a ransom paid to ensure his release. Others were given the option to leave the country because of the danger.

“So many Christians have left but the friars remain despite the difficulties,” he asserted. “They want to be with the people. If that means dying, they were willing to die.”

The armed conflict forced countless Syrians to find refuge in Greece where Franciscan friars are assisting them through their churches in Rhodes and Cyprus. Fr. Vasko praised members of his order for their courage and dedication to ministry.

“They are committed to their vocation as Franciscans. It’s a reflection of St. Francis who was always ready to be martyred for the Lord and faith.”

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was in North Texas last month as part of a 13-city U.S. tour organized to raise money for programs developed by the FFHL. With hundreds of Christians leaving the region every year because of economic hardship, political instability, and an undercurrent of discrimination, the organization works to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land by providing young people with programs and resources. Hope, for many, comes in the form of education.

Scholarships, given to 385 students, make a brighter, more optimistic future in their homeland possible. About half of the recipients are young men and women in college.

“They are getting a free education and coming out as professional people securing jobs in the area,” the FFHL spokesman pointed out. “Eighty-five percent go into medicine, architecture, education, or some other profession. The other 15 percent get married and want to raise families but they are doing that with a degree behind them.”

This year the Foundation will offer 46 new scholarships.

“We are building a future for Christians in the Holy Land,” Fr. Vasko continued. “If we don’t give them hope, motivation, and a reason to remain, we won’t have a living, worshipping community in 60 years. Everyone will leave.”

Statistics seem to confirm the dire prediction.

In 1922, 10 percent of the population, in what was then officially known as Palestine, was Christian. Over the years, steady emigration decreased the populace to two percent and the number continues to dwindle. Today, there are 3 million Palestinians. Approximately 150,000 are Christian.

The idea that holy sites, like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, may become nothing more than a tourist attraction for visitors is a startling possibility.

“We have to remember that holy sites can’t just exist in isolation. They need a living, worshipping community to carry on,” the friar explained. “All of us have a moral obligation to do what it takes to ensure there will always be a Christian presence in the land where our religious heritage began.”

The Foundation is the only organization in the Holy Land focused on stabilizing the lives of young Christians like Sarah (not her real name) who dreamed of becoming a teacher. With her father deceased and her mother doing menial jobs to support four children, the thought of attending college was unfeasible.

“When she received the scholarship, she became very emotional and started to cry,” Fr. Vasko remembered. “She said we changed her life but I told her God changed her life.”

Today, the future educator is a sophomore at Bethlehem University earning above average grades. Since 1997, talented but underprivileged students, like Sarah, have received full, four-year scholarships from the FFHL. Armed with a degree, once-marginalized Christians become productive, employed residents of the Holy Land.

“When you give people who have nothing an opportunity, they look at life differently,” Fr. Vasko pointed out. “Compared to what we pay in the U.S., $6,000 for an education is a simple thing.”

The Foundation also tries to curb the flow of emigration by providing housing for Christian families through subsidies and new construction projects. Humanitarian efforts support the neediest members of society.

“Success continues in the Holy Land because of the generosity of Catholics and Christians in the United States,” insisted Fr. Vasko, noting that Texans are among the most charitable. “They’re eager to give other people opportunities.”

A resident of the Holy Land for more than 30 years, the articulate public relations pro says audiences are always surprised to learn about the exodus of Christians from the birthplace of faith. It’s a story rarely covered by the secular press.

“Christians in the Holy Land don’t have a platform or voice so the Foundation tries to be that voice,” Fr. Vasko explained.

And American Catholics are listening. The Christian community is slowly being rebuilt one college graduate at a time.

“That’s a success story,” enthused Fr. Vasko. “When you have 375 kids who were planning to leave but are now staying — that speaks volumes.”

FORT WORTH — As the Franciscans prepare to celebrate the 800th anniversary of their arrival in the Holy Land, the order’s effort to keep the Christian faith alive in the places where it was born has never been more important — or challenging.

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