Observations from Jerusalem by Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land
JERUSALEM — Father Peter Vasko, OFM, was in Dallas raising money for the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL) on Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists in Gaza breached Israel’s southern border at daybreak and began gunning down hundreds of Jewish settlers in their homes.
The surprise attack against innocent men, women, and children resulted in the greatest loss of Jewish life on any single day since the Holocaust.
“I was horrified by what took place,” the Foundation’s president told the North Texas Catholic. “Killing babies — decapitating people — is demonic. It’s like going back to barbaric days. It was absolutely terrible.”
Although the Foundation’s headquarters in Jerusalem is about 150 miles from Gaza, the ongoing armed conflict between Palestinian militants and Israel is having an impact on the Foundation’s work. Founded in 1994, the nonprofit was established by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land to stem the exodus of Christians from the region. Church leaders predicted if the migration trend continued, Christianity could easily cease to exist in the Holy Land within 50 years.
The Foundation supports and preserves the minority Christian community living in the region through donor-based education, economic advancement, and humanitarian programs.
“Our custos (a superior in the Franciscan Order) in Jerusalem told me the religious are being told it’s better to stay indoors and not walk around,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t have any events going on because of the problems in Gaza. It’s like a ghost town right now.”
A large portion of the Franciscan’s ministry is hosting pilgrimages and, with many of the shrines closed, that program is temporarily on hold.
“I had one starting Nov. 2 but people are cancelling right and left because of what they are seeing on television,” the friar explained. “Pilgrims have evacuated and are going through Jordan to get to the United States.”
Streets are empty except for the police, and Christians living in Jerusalem fear being arrested because they are Palestinian and Arab. Many employed in the hotel industry or hospitals, now operating with reduced staffs, are without jobs.
“Everything is shut down, so it’s having a negative impact financially on Christians and other people living in the area,” Fr. Vasko stated.
“Eventually, we’ll have to secure financial assistance for those Christians who are no longer working because of the situation. They’ll need food, money for rent, etc.”
Twice a year, the former marketing and public relations specialist leaves his Jerusalem monastery for an 8-week visit to the U.S. where he raises funds and creates awareness for the 11 programs operated by the Franciscans. Money donated to the Foundation preserves the holy sites, supports basic human rights, and helps Christian families thrive in their ancestral homeland. Christians make up 1.7 percent of Israel’s population of nine million.
One of the most effective outreach services is the University Scholarship program that provides young people with the education necessary for gainful employment. To date, over 600 students have benefitted from the program.
“Ninety percent of graduates go on to professional jobs in medicine, law, accounting, and engineering,” said the native New Yorker. “In spite of all the difficulties over the years, these young people are now able to get married, have a job, and can pay rent for an apartment. We’re thankful to God this has been so successful.”
Financial security allows them to enjoy a stable, more prosperous life in the place of their birth.
“At one time, 500 people were leaving Bethlehem each year and now that has gone down to only 200,” the friar enthused. “Giving out those college scholarships has certainly had an effect.”
During the COVID pandemic, the Foundation also distributed $300,000 in food and other supplies to elderly Christians not able to shop. It also suspended rent collections from apartments tied to the organization.
Although the uncertainty caused by war lingers, the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land will continue efforts to raise money and increase awareness of its mission to assist Christians in the Holy Land, “because we have to let people know what’s going on,” Fr. Vasko stressed. “We’re going to need more and more help for our people who want to stay. They’re not involved in this terrible war. It’s between the militant Muslims and the Israelis.”
He asks North Texas Catholics to pray that peaceful negotiations resolve the conflict soon. He worries ending the psychological warfare between two cultures and religions may be more difficult.
“I’ve been here 36 years, and I’m sorry to say that I have found the militant Muslims and Jewish people have a great distrust and hatred for each other, and they have passed on this distrust and hatred to their children and their children’s children,” he commented. “It’s become embedded in the psychological DNA of both sides.”
The skilled spokesman and author of Our Visit to the Holy Land doesn’t feel a peaceful coexistence is possible.
“I’ve seen the cycle of violence for the past 36 years, and I despise it,” he said emphatically. “I pray, and I ask people to pray for peace in Jerusalem and for those who have been killed innocently on both sides. Ask our Lord to give peace and solace to their families.”
Fr. Vasko hopes to return to the Holy Land as soon as possible.