(The Criterion, By Sean Gallagher) The Church in the Holy Land and the broader Middle East has suffered grievously over the past several years from attacks by a variety of Islamic militant groups.
The latest persecution has come at the hands of Islamic State soldiers attacking Christian communities in Syria and Iraq.
Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, founder and president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, spoke with The Criterion on Oct. 8 about these trials during a recent trip he made to Indianapolis to meet with foundation donors there.
While decrying the pressure put on the Church in the Holy Land and other areas of the Middle East, Father Peter put them into a broader context. Franciscans, he said, have experienced persecution since beginning their ministry in the Holy Land 800 years ago, and some 100 of them have given their lives as martyrs over that time.
Two days before the interview, Franciscan Father Hanna Jallouf and a group of about 20 other Christians were abducted in Knayeh in northwestern Syria by jihadist militants active in Syria’s civil war.
Although they were released on Oct. 10, their abduction, Father Peter said, was part of a larger series of actions taken against the Church in Syria, where rebel groups have forced Christian women to wear veils, stopped church bells from being rung and removed crucifixes from Christian buildings.
Nonetheless, Father Peter said the Franciscans ministering in Syria are determined to remain there.
“They said, ‘No. We’re here to do God’s will,’ ” he said. “It really, in some ways, has inspired people who are close to death to maintain a spirituality of martyrdom, saying, ‘We’re here. We’re not going to leave. If we’re going to die, we’re going to have to die.’
“It’s given the rest of the friars in other Middle Eastern countries the strength and courage to stand up for the faith.”
Father Peter said that his fellow Franciscans are, in part, motivated to remain in place despite the threat of persecution because members of their order and Middle Eastern Christians have faced such trials in the Middle East for centuries.
There is something new, however, in the most recent actions taken against the Church there, Father Peter said.
“What is new is when you have radical terrorist organizations like ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], who are actually killing people and moving 100,000 people out of Mosul under threat of death,” he said of the militants.
Although they constantly face the threat of violence and discrimination because of their faith, he said that the Franciscans in the Middle East have been inspired by the example of Pope Francis, who has on several notable occasions sought to focus the world’s attention on the suffering of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
“It’s been very encouraging,” Father Peter said. “He’s open to all people. He’s a mediator. That’s what Franciscans are. That is part of his charism.”
He also noted that the growing pressure against Christians in the Middle East has brought the Catholic Church and the various Orthodox Churches in that region closer together in what Pope Francis has called “an ecumenism of blood.”
“We’ve seen progress in that regard,” Father Peter said. “There have been more meetings together. When push comes to shove, we have to stay together. We’re only 150,000 out of 2.9 million Muslims [in the Holy Land].”
Programs sponsored by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land have sought to stabilize the presence of the faithful in the Holy Land, which has declined sharply over the past century.
Since the foundation was established 20 years ago, it has given $7.4 million in college scholarships to 296 students; $1 million to students attending vocational schools and $900,000 in tuition assistance to families who have children enrolled in Catholic grade schools in the Holy Land.
“They’re staying here,” Father Peter said. “They’re not leaving. Getting an education, a good job, getting married and providing for one’s family is all the Christians want. And they’re getting it.
“Their dreams are being realized by the generosity of so many American Catholics who are donating money for housing, college education, trade schools, for needy families, for orphanages.”
(For more information about the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, log on to www.ffhl.org.) †