Despite the stresses of alternating violence and ceasefires between Hamas and Israel, Franciscans in the Holy Land are committed to helping the region's Christians remain in their homeland.
“We pray and we work,” said Father Peter Vasko, O.F.M., president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. “That's how we will help preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land. That’s our goal.”
Since 1994, the foundation has run humanitarian programs in education, child care, housing and employment to help Christians remain in the Holy Land despite pressures like discrimination and violence that encourage them to leave.
There are about 150,000 Christians in the Holy Land, and about 500 families leave each year, the Franciscan foundation reports.
Christians in Gaza now number about 2,500.
Fr. Vasko said Gaza's Christians are caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Israel. However, the majority of the Franciscan foundation's daily ministries have not been affected by the recent violent clashes.
Fr. Vasko said this was because “we are serving Christians both in Israel proper and in the West Bank, far enough away from the rocket fire and Israeli ground movement and airstrikes.”
The renewed conflict has affected the Franciscans' spirits.
“How do the Franciscans feel? Very sad,” Fr. Vasko said. “The Middle East has had a very turbulent history of violence. Seeking peace for both sides to end the hostilities is easier said than done.”
“For us it is very discouraging to see how hatred and fear continue to prevail,” he added.
The priest reflected on Pope Francis' May 2014 visit to Israel. While the Pope “came as a peacemaker,” Fr. Vasko said, “ultimately it is up to the respective leaders to work out their differences.”
The Franciscans were also disappointed by the new outbreak of violence, given the hope for “new initiatives towards peace” after the papal visit.
“It will take a concerted effort to bring the warring parties to peace,” Fr. Vasko said. “The expectations of both sides can sometimes be unrealistic based on politics and economy.”
He said that the 20-foot tall separation barrier, which stretches for hundreds of miles, has played an important factor in the conflict.
Fr. Vasko said that Franciscans continue to pray for an end to the conflict.
More information about the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land is available at its website, www.ffhl.org.