by Edward Pentin | Winter 2012
Many Palestinian Christians in the early 1990s, mostly young people, came to the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem to ask for various types of assistance. This included financial aid which would allow them to attend a university. Many of these young people expressed concern that they would be forced to leave the Holy Land if nothing was done to alleviate their problems.
The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land stems from this cry for help and the continuous emigration of Christians from the region. Father Peter Vasko, an American Friar Minor, is the president.
“Our absolute priority is to finance university scholarships which, I can assure you, have proven to be an effective way to answer the problem of the Christian exodus,” he told The Holy Land Review. “Our young people could have left but instead they stayed. Up to the present time we have supplied more than 170 scholarships which cover educational fees and the purchase of books. We are speaking about a total of $3.5 million. So far, 80 of our students finished college. Of our graduates, 70 percent found work in various professional areas: in business, education, law, medicine, engineering. These are all young adults who decided to stay in their own homeland. None have left. The remaining 30 percent is made up of those youths who decided to start a family.”
The second priority involves those students who prefer not to start university studies, opting for vocational education to become plumbers, auto mechanics and metalworkers. “We cover all educational fields and it is marvelous,” explained Father Vasko. “We are very satisfied.”
Conserving Roots. One may argue that, once acquiring a high level of education, these youths could seek better paying jobs abroad. Father Vasko does not hide that this is a real problem.
“Our experience tells us that those who attended universities find work in Israeli companies. The situation is a bit more complicated in Bethlehem because there are not many work opportunities, but even there you can find something. Anyway, yes, there are those who think: ‘I deserve a higher salary.’ Exceptions to the rule can always exist but a large portion of the people I have dealt with are interested in remaining. They are young people who do not want to leave their land because they have their parents and roots here. Money doesn’t seem to be as determining a spur as many people think.”
Looking at the data, emigration problems are especially serious. Living on Israeli soil today are seven million people plus another three million in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Among these, Christians number 160,000 – less than two percent – and continue decreasing. The number was double half a century ago. Contributing to this decline is a low birth rate along with political and economic reasons which induce emigration.
Many of the funds collected by the Franciscan Foundation for supporting the Christian presence in the Holy Land come from the United States. This fact makes Father Vasko especially proud.
“I’ve found Christians in the United States, especially Catholic faithful, who show great interest in helping maintain the mission and presence of Christians in the Holy Land. A good portion of Americans consider it a worthy cause. I have noted also that those who visit the Holy Land as pilgrims are even more enthusiastic. After a hands-on experience with these problems that youths have to face, pilgrims become convinced donors.”
Remembering Sambi. Nostalgia shows through the words of the religious when asked to recall Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pontifical diplomat who died last July 27.
“Archbishop Sambi – may he rest in peace – nuncio to the United States after being stationed in Israel, entered our Franciscan Foundation as a special adviser four years ago and he proved to be a giant in his assistance role. When Benedict XVI visited the United States in April 2008, he received me for a few minutes at the apostolic nunciature. Archbishop Sambi already had briefly spoken to him of the Franciscan Foundation. The Pope told me: ‘In Archbishop Sambi, you have a very close and dear colleague who appreciates the work that the Franciscan Foundation is doing.’ He then added that education was truly the key to keeping Christians in the Holy Land. That already was our area of commitment, but the word of the Vicar of Christ confirmed that we were on the right road.” The challenge today is to involve an ever wider public.
“We have worked well with the TV station EWTN. Thanks to it we are sure that thousands of TV viewers can become aware of the problems faced by Christians in the Holy Land. But I would like to reach an even wider Christian audience. I’m the only friar traveling the length and breadth of the United States to explain the situation and I can’t go everywhere. I would also like this mission to be spoken of more at the national level in the U.S., but it takes time. I repeat to people that we must keep in mind that without the mother Church at Jerusalem there would not even be a Church at Sacramento, at Columbus, at Miami or at any other part of the world. If we are not aware of the religious roots and the patrimony from which we come, how can we call ourselves Disciples of Christ? But the thing that really encourages me is seeing these Christian students we have helped and whose dreams are being realized by convincing them to remain in their own land.”
The Marketing Friar
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1943, Father Peter Vasko has been a Friar Minor of the Custody of the Holy Land since 1981 and a priest since 1987. “My professional background is in the area of marketing and public relations,” he recalls. “The Custos of the Holy Land at that time, Father Giuseppe Nazzaro, knowing of my abilities, told me: ‘We have many problems. There are many people making requests and money is lacking. We need a supplemental activity that aids the Custody so as not to tap into the funds of the Good Friday collection.’ He asked me to go to the United States and check out the real possibilities of concretizing such a project. Thus, I met several bishops and many professional people who confirmed to me that, ‘yes,’ this was an important thing to do. The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land took its first steps only in 1997. But since then, it has been a marvelous experience.”