By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 14, 2010
The Atlanta Archdiocese section of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem recently hosted Father Peter Vasko, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land.
He spoke at a dinner following the Mass for Mary, Queen of Palestine, on Sunday, Oct. 3. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated the Mass at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.
Father Vasko, who is touring the United States, said the complex situation in the region often puts Christian Arabs between extremists in both the Muslim and Jewish communities.
It is a tradition that on Good Friday a collection is held in all Catholic churches to help the church’s mission in the Holy Land. In 2011, North Georgia Catholics gave some $235,040 for the collection.
Father Vasko answered questions by e-mail:
Georgia Bulletin: What interested you in heading up the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and how long have you been its leader?
Father Vasko: In 1994, I was serving on the Provincial Council for the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and ran into a good number of young Christians who were planning to leave the country since they had no means to go to college or have a job, let alone housing. They did not want to leave, but they felt that they were being forced out. … If nothing was going to be done to stem this exodus, then within 60 years Christianity could easily disappear from the very place where Christ founded our church and all we would have would be empty religious monuments and museums and no living, worshipping community. I then approached the council to begin some type of endowment or foundation in the U.S. to raise both awareness and funding specifically to help stem the Christian exodus. We were incorporated in 1995. … We then began to follow up on our commitment to stem the Christian exodus from the Holy Land via a three-pronged approach—providing a grant for a free college degree for academically inclined but economically marginalized Christian students, assisting them with jobs and employment and lastly with housing. I have been the president of FFHL for the last 15 years.
Georgia Bulletin: How has the situation changed since you began? For the better? For the worse?
Father Vasko: If one is speaking politically, I think the situation is slowly deteriorating for both the Israeli government and for the militant Palestinians’ government.
The crux of the entire problem in this part of the region has been and will continue to be “ownership of the same land” … both claiming ownership. Ever since the United Nations partition of Palestine some 63 years ago, the conflict has never stopped. … Needless to say, there have been major talks and so-called agreements to stop the violence such as the Oslo accords, the Wye agreement, the Road Map, and many other smaller ceasefire agreements, which, regrettably, have not been able to stop the ongoing conflict. That is not to say that we should cease further talks or negotiations. They must continue, but, unfortunately, I have seen no encouraging progress.
The Palestinians and Israelis are definitely locked in a “peace-security” conundrum. Israelis will not be able to enjoy greater peace and security until the Palestinians have achieved more control over their lives and land, and Palestinians will not fully realize peace and justice until Israel feels a greater sense of security. Extremists on both sides understand this bind and sadly are exploiting it with their tactics.
… And the indigenous Christians? They are simply caught in the middle as they are not in the conflict at all, yet most Israeli soldiers look upon Christians as Arabs, as Palestinians, and hence the enemy, while their militant Muslim neighbors look upon them as pro-West and traitors to the Islamic cause. Where do they fit in? For many, they don’t fit in.
But we as Christians in the Holy Land know who we are and where our roots and religious heritage comes from. Let us always remember that it is the “cradle of Christianity” in the sense that only Jesus, the founder of Christianity, was actually born in this land. Abraham was born in Ur, presently now Iraq, and Mohammed was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In any case these “guardians of Christianity” have been part of this land for centuries and we intend to continue to be part of this land.
From a religious standpoint, all of the three monotheistic religions in the Holy Land basically have an abiding respect for the other. There are extremists on all sides, but they are only a small percentage. Since I arrived there this aspect has not changed.
Georgia Bulletin: What gives you hope for the future?
Father Vasko: What gives me hope for the future is that in spite of all the political turmoil, our Christians are being helped and encouraged to remain in the Holy Land. Yes, they experience the everyday problems facing them, but in many ways they are learning to cope and to know that there is a future for them because of the help that is being given to them by the Franciscan Foundation because all those who graduated from college are now finding jobs as professionals in their community and are now able to rent an apartment and have now decided to remain in their homeland.
Georgia Bulletin: What have been some recent accomplishments of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land?
Father Vasko: FFHL now has some eight humanitarian programs …to assist our Christians in the Holy Land. Educational programs consist of the University Scholarships Program, Child Sponsorship Program, Vocational/Technical Programs, and Magnificat Music Scholarship Program. Humanitarian programs consist of the Franciscan Family Center, Franciscan Boys Home, Children Without Borders, Children March for Peace in Bethlehem and, lastly, housing.
We have given and are giving over 155 Christian students a free college education amounting to $3.8 million as well as having 200 children whose school tuition is being paid for by sponsors in the U.S. We have just given 30 vocational/technical grants for those not wishing to go to college but (who) prefer to learn a labor trade or skill in a two-year program. We have assisted … in the building of dozens of new apartments and have established a home for boys in Bethlehem who come from dysfunctional families.
Georgia Bulletin: What challenges do you see on the horizon for the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land?
Father Vasko: The challenge that I see for the foundation is to continue to maintain its profile in the United States among the Catholic faithful so as to continue to let more and more people know what is happening in the Holy Land, both good and bad, about our crisis as well as the solutions that are slowly turning the tide of emigration. The other challenge is to continue to raise more and more funding for the programs that do exist and are working so well in providing the needed motivation and incentives for our Christians to remain, as there are many more young Christians “waiting in the wings” for help.
Georgia Bulletin: What would you like the people of the Atlanta Archdiocese to know about the work done by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land?
Father Vasko: The Christophers used to say that it takes only one candle “to light the darkness.” I would like to ask the faithful of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to be that candle to light the way for your brothers and sisters in the Holy Land who are desperately seeking your help. Let us always remember that we stand on the shoulders of those who went before us, and for us it is the Holy Land, our Christian heritage, our “living church” in Jerusalem, and our sacred holy sites. If we are going to do something about the problems facing our Christians, then we have to do something about protecting them, loving them, maintaining them and somehow guaranteeing that they will always be available for those coming after us.
In many ways, a great challenge awaits us and we Catholics, knowing what we now know, cannot simply sit back and watch these guardians of Christianity simply disappear. Our church is dying and it needs to be rebuilt.
Will some of you in the archdiocese assist us in rebuilding our Mother Church? If you do, know that you will be responding to the religious call first revealed by Abraham our father in faith and that is “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”
For more information on the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, visit www.ffhl.org or call (866) 905-3787.