Catholics called to protect holy sites of Christendom

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

OVERLAND PARK — Joe Hasboun was one of the finest parishioners of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

“He was a kindly old man who walked with a cane, a daily communicant, a gentleman of the old school and a man who played Santa Claus at Christmastime,” said Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, who has spent 25 years ministering at the sacred shrines in the Holy Land.

“Joe was having a heart attack and the only hospital to get emergency treatment was in Jerusalem,” Father Peter said.

“His son and daughter anxiously brought him to the [Israeli] checkpoint, and the soldier told them they could not take their father to the hospital — he was ‘faking it,’” the priest said.

“As his children were frantically pleading with the soldier, Joe died in the car. He was 76 years old,” Father Peter continued. “How would you feel if that happened to your mother and father?”

It is these kinds of incidents that feed the cycle of violence and hate that has gripped the Holy Land and has caused a mass exodus of Christian Palestinians from the birthplace of Christianity, Father Peter told some 1,400 Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, a worldwide lay order committed to the protection of the Holy Land. The Northern Lieutenancy of the order, for which Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann is the grand prior, held its annual convention in Overland Park from Sept. 17-20.

The Holy Land will never know peace as long as the Israeli occupation and settlement of historic Palestinian lands seized in the 1967 Six-Day War continues, the priest said.

And the construction of a 480-mile long, 24-foot high “barrier wall” to separate Palestinians and Israelis is causing suffering and death.

It is not only the elderly, like Hasboun, who die needlessly because they are not allowed to cross into Israeli-occupied Jerusalem for medical care, Father Peter said.

“Many pregnant mothers who were in labor faced the same treatment,” he said.

“We had four young mothers from our parish in Bethany who were in labor and had some serious complications,” Father Peter said.

“When their husbands reached the checkpoints and explained that they needed to get their wives to the hospital in Jerusalem, they were refused,” he said. “Each of these young mothers had to give birth to her child in the back seat of the car. Sadly, because of the complications, each of the babies died in the car.”

“We are talking about basic universal rights — the right to earn a living, the right to medical accessibility, the right to an education at whatever school you choose, the right to mobility — rights all of you share in this great land of America, but not to a specific segment of the population in a country called Israel,” he said.

Christians, caught in the middle of the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land, are disappearing, Father Peter said.

“The entire indigenous Christian population, both in Palestine and Israel proper, is only 150,000 out of a population of 9 million. That is less than 2 percent, compared with 13.3 percent in 1900,” he said.

“Jerusalem has only 10,000 Christians out of a population of 650,000,” he said. “Bethlehem is now 30 percent Christian and 70 percent Muslim. Forty years ago, those numbers were reversed.”

The few Christians that remain are likely living in poverty, he noted.

“Economically, 35 percent of the Palestinian people are now unemployed, and 65 percent of Palestinians are now living below the poverty level of under $3,000 per year,” Father Peter said.

There is no international aid flowing to Christian Palestinians, particularly from the United States.

“In a 2007 agreement, Israel was given an additional $30 billion (in U.S. aid) for military aid over the next 10 years with no strings attached,” he said. “A few months ago, the U.S. gave $700 million to the Palestinian Authority, a jump from $124 million three years ago.

“None of that money ever trickles down to the Christian population. And because the Christians have no world bodies or major governments or organizations helping them, they are the ones who are leaving.”

The “ongoing exodus” of Christians from the Holy Land, particularly young Christians, poses an “alarming crisis for Christianity,” Father Peter said.

“Most church officials are saying that if nothing is done to stem this exodus, then within 60 years, Christianity could easily disappear from the very place where Christ founded the church,” he said.

“Let us always remember that for Christian Palestinians, the Holy Land is their homeland,” he said.

“They were born there and they live there. They have cultivated the land and have buried their dead under the land. It is a land that God, in his divine wisdom, has chosen to give them as well as to the Jews and Muslims.

“In many ways, our Christians are truly living the Beatitudes.”

“They hunger and thirst for justice, then mourn for the loss of lives, friends and freedom. And instead of fighting back and seeking ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ they turn the other cheek as Christ calls them to, in mercy and love,” said Father Peter.

“We Catholics, knowing what we now know, cannot simply sit back and see these guardians of Christianity nor the holy sites simply disappear,” he added. “The holy sites of Christendom cannot simply be left in isolation, but need a living and worshipping community to validate them and to carry them on,” he said.

“I hope that as Knights and Ladies (of the Holy Sepulcher) we will be able to do more in our mission of preserving and maintaining the Christian presence in the Holy Land, as well as being able to be their extended voice so as to give hope to our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land who are desperately seeking our help,” Father Peter said.

In impromptu remarks to the convention, Cardinal John Foley, grand master of the international order, also called upon the knights and ladies to pray and to work for peace in the Holy Land.

“Our work is a holy work and a work of human rights,” Cardinal Foley said.

He told of celebrating the Easter Vigil this year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where tradition says that Christ’s body was laid to rest and rose from the dead.

“We saw how the Christian people were excluded from the Old City. There were more police than worshippers in the church, and the worshippers were excluded in a gruff and humiliating way from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” Cardinal Foley said.

“It was discouraging,” he added. “But what Christians in the Holy Land have been able to do in remaining faithful should be an inspiration to all of us.”

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