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American Franciscan in Israel details challenges for Christians


ReeveJ | CC BY-SA 3.0

John Burger - published on 06/20/21

Fr. Peter Vasko produces video series showing how locals are surviving through COVID-inflicted dearth of pilgrims.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit lots of populations hard, but perhaps no suffering is more poignant than what is being endured by Christians and others in the Holy Land. So many Christians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places in the Holy Land depend on the pilgrims who flood into places like Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories every year to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the Apostles.

Franciscan Fr. Peter F. Vasko, President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, has produced a video series to showcase how the pandemic has affected Christians living in the Holy Land. Walk with Father Peter, produced in collaboration with the Catholic Media Center, takes viewers through the streets of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and along the Via Dolorosa in an effort to bring awareness to the ways Christians in the West can support basic human rights and maintain a continued presence of the Holy Land Christian minority. 

Aleteia recently caught up with Fr. Vasko to get an update on the situation in the areas where he ministers.

What changes have we seen since the video series was completed? Are the number of pilgrims picking up or are they expected to do so soon?

As of today, the number of pilgrims coming over to the Holy Land is still quite small. I am told that people around the world are opening up in their desire to travel domestically but that international travel still tends to be a bit sluggish due to the many restrictions that various countries put on arriving passengers. Yet the Minister of Tourism for Israel recently stated that they expect a great influx of new tourists during the latter part of 2021.

Here in the U.S. we are seeing more and more opening up. How does the situation in the Holy Land, particularly in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, compare with that?

Because a large majority of Israeli citizens have already been vaccinated, and coupled with the fact that new cases of the virus in Jerusalem and surrounding areas have been minimal, most of Israel is open and with little or no restrictions. Bethlehem, though, is a different story. The large majority of people living there have not been vaccinated due to the fact that vaccines have been difficult to obtain. Some stores are opening up while the locals are still wearing masks.

What have shopkeepers and others who rely on tourism been doing to make ends meet?

That all depends on the individual shopkeepers and how successful or unsuccessful they have been before the virus began. Some have no financial problems and are bearing with the situation while others are really suffering economically. Most of the owners simply stay at home and live on whatever savings they had. The Israeli government, though, did help somewhat by providing monthly checks to those stores who paid their taxes. 

Have you seen any emigration because of the pandemic?

There has been very little emigration due to the fact that Israel has had the most lockdowns of any other country in the world. Only a handful of people, mostly governmental, were allowed to move freely. Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was closed 90% of the time. And even if they were able to depart, where would they go to begin again in a world full of the virus?

What has the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land specifically done to assist the local Christian population during this time?

The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land was giving tens of thousands of dollars for food supplies, free emergency medical expenses as well as taking care of needed medicines for senior citizens both in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Our boys at the Franciscan Boys Home in Bethlehem took part in the delivery of the food supplies by bringing them to people’s residences and leaving the supplies at the front door.

What about the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land? How has it supported the local population through these trying times?

The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has been in existence for the past 800 years and has always taken up the challenges facing our Christian faithful.

Over the years, the Custody has built hundreds of apartments for our Christian families in Judea and Galilee. During this pandemic our Christian families were all sequestered in their residences during the many lockdowns, causing dire economic problems. So in a gesture of solidarity the Custody lifted the monthly rental payments for their apartments for a year.

Secondly, the Franciscan Custody decided not to close our schools and to continue the salaries of our teachers so that classes would continue online for our students.

Thirdly, the Custody’s parishes have all been providing food baskets for the indigent and for the many families in their respective parishes. 

Tell me about yourself. How did an American end up being a Franciscan in the Holy Land?

Before entering the Franciscan Order, my background was in marketing and public relations in the corporate world and thankfully I did rather well in it. Later in my early 30s the Lord called me to religious life, and I joined the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. I became a pilgrimage guide for several years and later was asked to begin forming a foundation in the U.S. to raise awareness and funding for the many needs of the Christians in the Holy Land.

During that time frame, I became involved with our U.S. Consulate as the unofficial Chaplain for the Marine Security Guard, which protects all of the U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world — a fine bunch of dedicated young men and women of the United States Marine Corps. In fact, since the late 1980s I have the honor of already serving in 46 Detachments for the MSG in Jerusalem. My work with them is not only from a ministerial standpoint but as a mentor, brother and friend. We share dinners together, go out together and pray together. 

Unbeknown to me, a lot of correspondence was taking place among the U.S. Marine Corps, and it was eventually announced that I was to be inducted into the Corps as an “Honorary Marine” for my work and dedication over these many years with the Marines. That event took place at the Pentagon on December 12, 2008, with 40 Marines present, as then-General James T. Conway, 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps, granted the prestigious title of Honorary Marine on me and then pinned the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on my person.

In my talk I not only thanked the Commandant for this distinguished recognition but mentioned that two great honors have happened to me in my life — the first was being ordained to the priesthood and secondly being made an Honorary Marine. Needless to say, it continues to be an honor for me to serve the U.S. Marine Corps as their “first Marine Chaplain” here in Jerusalem at our embassy.

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