Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


North Georgians Help Christians In Holy Land

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published November 10, 2005

The vocation of Father Peter Vasko, OFM, crystallized when he saw the fivefold cross of Jerusalem. “It was like an ax slicing me in two.”

While on retreat some 25 years ago at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers the successful businessman was seeking the next step in his life. As he began to sense the Lord’s action during this retreat he found himself deeply moved by this cross and struggled to discern what the Lord wanted. “I fell down and I started crying. I was asking, ‘What do you want me to do?’”

He had already “realized there was an emptiness in my life. I didn’t know where it was going to lead. I started going to Conyers on weekends and asking hard questions. I had to go through a conversion of heart.”

He had spent 10 years working in marketing and property management after graduating from Catholic University of America in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He was successful and “materialistic.”

After this life-changing retreat he sold his house—which turned out to be very quick and easy—and disposed of all his goods. “I left with nothing but gained everything.”

He entered the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in 1981, which has responsibility for the religious sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land precious to the Catholic Church. He was ordained to the diaconate in Jerusalem and, in 1987, was ordained a priest.

Father Vasko is now director of development for the Franciscan Custody and president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, an organization created in 1994 to provide a worldwide voice for Christians living in the Holy Land and to ensure the continued Christian presence in the area. The foundation has formal support from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches worldwide and seeks to raise funds to provide very practical kinds of support to the Christians in the Holy Land—scholarships, housing and jobs—so that in the future there will be Christians in this region where the Christian faith has its origin and source.

Father Vasko, in an interview in Atlanta Sept. 23, said he believes that what Christians today most need from the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land is the opportunity and the means to receive an education.

“I think the most important thing we have to do is (ensure) education—if we can provide them a college education and upon graduation (if) they can secure a job. Without an education, our Christians will go nowhere,” he said.

Funding college scholarships and building housing for Christians “is one way we can encourage and motivate our people to stay there. They can pay for their family, their children, their shelter.”

“If they don’t have a college education, a job, a place to live, they are going to emigrate,” he said. “We were the first organization in the Holy Land to have this three-pronged approach.”

The foundation has given over 90 college scholarships to talented young people who lacked the means to pay for higher education. Of those who have received scholarships, he said, 22 people have graduated from college so far and 50 percent of them have jobs, including in professions such as pharmacy and engineering.

“These are kids who had nothing—(who) did not have the funding to go to college. Now these kids are getting jobs and staying in the Holy Land. The future lies in the youth.”

Numerically there are now about 160,000 Christians in Israel, including the areas of the West Bank and Gaza, Father Vasko said. He estimates “about half are still going to leave” the Holy Land in coming years because they have family members or other contacts already living in other countries who can help them emigrate and resettle.

“We are focusing in on those marginalized Christians who don’t have those contacts,” he said.

In addition, the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land has built about 40 houses. They are also building 120 new housing units in Bethphage on the Mount of Olives.

For Christian families who have had crude shelter in the past, the simple, but new and modern, housing units are breathtaking.

“You see people now have a modest, but beautiful, place to live in. They are so happy, so thankful for American Catholics who have made that possible,” Father Vasko said.

They are also helping to create businesses and provide opportunities for employment. They have 80 young men working in a landscaping business and in construction.

The Franciscan Family Center of Bethlehem gives psychological counseling to people affected by the conflict. They are teaching computer classes and helping elementary school children.

The efforts continue despite tremendous obstacles for the Christian community in the Holy Land. One is that the Israeli government is currently building a wall that will be one more barrier to employment and education for those living in the Christian areas.

There will be two entrances into the Jerusalem area when the wall is built—one for inhabitants and one for tourists.

“It is very difficult for our people to secure permits to work in Jerusalem,” Father Vasko said.

He estimated 320,000 people have lost their right to enter Israel proper because of the wall. In addition to the loss of access to jobs and to medical care, it has caused some Christians to relocate, he added.

“We had built 40 apartments for our Christians. Before the wall was finished, half our Christians left to go find a place in Jerusalem. Once that wall is finished they will be considered West Bank (residents). For years they were considered (part of) Jerusalem. Now they are not.”

In addition, tourism has been drastically diminished in the Christian areas of the Holy Land because of fear of violence, and that loss of tourists and tourism revenues hurts people living in the Christian sector.

For about four years there was a drastic decrease in pilgrimages and tours in the Holy Land, he said, which has been difficult financially for the Franciscan Custody.

In the last year, finally, there has been a resurgence and pilgrims are visible again walking through the holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. He said all of the holy sites are in east Jerusalem, which is a very secure area.

“It is safe,” Father Vasko said. “I would encourage American Catholics to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By your presence, our Christians will see you as supporting them.”

Christians in the Holy Land “sort of feel abandoned by the Christian West,” he said. “One of the ways (to be supportive) is to come to the Holy Land to see the sites Jesus made holy, to revive your faith and to receive special graces.”

There are 72,000 people living in the metropolitan Bethlehem area; about 23,000 are Christians. Thirty-five years ago the population was 80 percent Christian and 20 percent Muslim; today it is 91 percent Muslim and 9 percent Christian.

One new concern for the foundation is mob violence against Christians, he said.

In Taybeh, a Muslim woman who conceived a child, allegedly by a Christian man she had been dating secretly, either committed suicide or was forced to drink poison to save her family’s honor. The homes of 14 Christians were burned by a mob from her town in retaliation.

“Since the second intifada there has been a rise in Moslem fundamentalism. We’re very, very concerned about this,” he said.

There are only about 150 Christians living in the Gaza strip, he said. Still the Franciscan Custody in the Holy Land supports the removal of Jewish settlements and the giving of the area to Arabs. He doubts it will be a solution to violence without economic concessions by the Israelis to the Arab population.

“Economic stability is the key for peace. If they don’t have economic stability it will start all over again.”

Although the United States provides funding to the state of Israel, $5 billion last year, and $75 million to the Palestinian Authority, “none of that money ever trickles down” to the Christian community, he said.

The one area where the Israeli government does assist the Christian community is that Israel does subsidize private schools, including Christian schools.

In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Karen Carroll is on the foundation’s board of trustees and the Church of St. Andrew in Roswell has been supportive over the years. Atlanta is one of the strong bases of support for the foundation in addition to Cincinnati, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

The ninth annual dinner for the foundation was held in Atlanta on Sept. 25 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. In addition to supporters of the work of the foundation in North Georgia, the dinner was attended by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, archbishop-emeritus of Philadelphia, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue.

Archbishop Donoghue and actor Jim Caviezel were presented with Guardian of the Holy Land Awards at the dinner.

One of the most important things people in the archdiocese can do is to pray for the region and educate themselves and others about the Christian community in the Holy Land and about the Christian exodus from the Holy Land, Father Vasko said.

The death of Yasser Arafat and the significance of the new leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization for the Christian community is still being evaluated, but it seems there is a greater indifference to Arabs who are Christian rather than Muslim, Father Vasko said.

“Arafat at least externally seemed to support the Christians. We are finding today the Palestinian Authority seems disinterested in the plight of the Christians, especially those (harmed) in recent attacks.”

“No compensation has been given to” the Christians whose homes were burned by mobs.

“We are asking, where is the help from the Palestinian Authority? … There is a concern: are they just for Palestinian Moslems? We don’t know why they are neglecting us, but it is a question we have to ask.”

Regarding the peace process, he said, “I think both sides have to compromise. If it is the Palestinians thinking one more suicide bomber is going to bring the Israelis to their knees, or Israel thinking one more target assassination or military incursion into the territories that the Palestinians are going to run up the white flag—they have both proven futile. What is needed is compromise based on reasonability.”

Quoting Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, he said only actions based on human rights and justice will bring about peace.

“They have to just sit down and compromise reasonably and in a rational manner,” he concluded. “Is that going to happen? We don’t know. We pray that they will. We hope that they will, but time will only tell.”

“In the midst of all the political turmoil, the foundation is quietly and behind the scenes helping our Christians survive, helping them get an education, helping them to get a job. We are so thankful to God in the midst of all this we are able to get this done. Things are being done consistently and quietly for them.”

Media coverage of the region tends to highlight militant groups on both sides of the conflict, he said, but “there are enough good people on both sides who want to live in peace.”

“I want to thank the archbishop and the people of Atlanta for their ongoing support to help us preserve and maintain the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” he said. “We encourage you to come and see for yourself what is happening to our Christians by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”


For more information on the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, visit