“… the ‘separation barrier’– this is what the Israelis call it; the Palestinians call it the ‘apartheid wall,’” he told your Catholic Herald in October. That divider has made for a “very, very tough” economic situation, according to the priest.
“We know what a closure means. No one comes in and no one goes out. A lot of these people worked in principal Israeli cities, whether it was Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and all of a sudden, the closure comes in,” he said. “The wall has drastically amplified that problem of the closure because now 320,000 people are not able to go to work in the principal Israeli cities.”
The 160,000 Christians in Israel and its territories account for 2 percent of the population – “a minority within a minority,” Fr. Vasko said, noting that they have no political clout and no economic standing.
“In the (U.S.) foreign aid bill for Israel, there was $5 billion; (President) Obama gave Palestine $700 million – none of that money ever trickles down to the Christians,” the priest said. “It either goes to Israeli people, which is fine, or it goes to the Muslim population. What happens to the Christians? They’re the ones who have no major organizations, no major world governments helping them, so they’re the ones leaving.”
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The exodus of Christians from Bethlehem is so grave a concern that it was addressed last July at the Vatican during the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. However, since 1994, the FFHL, after consulting with pastors and young Christians, has addressed that exodus. The group started the University Scholarship Program to raise money to provide scholarships to high school graduates with a B average who come from marginalized families in order that they might attend college, earn professional degrees, come back and work in the community and be able to afford housing.
“Seventy percent of our kids who have graduated are all dentists, pharmacists, engineers, architects, business people, educators – these kids are now staying,” he said of the 160 students who have been educated through the program during the last 14 years at a cost of $3.5 million. “We’re seeing light; it’s a small light, but we’re seeing light at the end of a very dark tunnel. If this continues, then we’ll see more positive effects of children, young adults, who have jobs who want to stay.”
In addition to FFHL providing a voice for Christians living in the Holy Land, Fr. Vasko said it is critical to Christianity that the emigration of Christians from the area ends.
“We have a stake. I always believe in maintaining our roots and traditions as a Catholic, as a Christian. We have to maintain our Christian heritage, our Christian roots, our Christian history,” he said of the multiple efforts made by FFHL to serve the Christian community.
Besides the University Scholarship Program, other programs FFHL sponsors are Children without Borders, Franciscan Boys Home, Franciscan Family Center and subsidized housing. For Fr. Vasko, preserving the past means taking care of Holy Land Christians now.
“We have a moral obligation, a religious obligation, to make sure that our communities will always be a living, worshiping community, not just something in the past. That’s what makes me continue on with this,” he said. ”I know who we are, where we come from, and we have to have a sense of who we are as Christians; if we don’t, then how can we call ourselves followers of Christ? This is where he was born, this is where he ministered. This is where he died. This is where he rose from the dead. This is the root of our faith. This is the basis of the Bible. Salvation history is right here.”