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Holy Land fund undercut by name confusion


The Holy Land Foundation has been getting a bad name recently and is feeling the pinch because of it. Donations to the charity founded in 1994 to stem the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land have dropped since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The shortfall in giving that most U.S. charities have experienced except those serving the victims of Sept. 11 has been made worse by the Holy Land Foundation being confused with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the largest Muslim charity in the United States. The latter was accused by the Bush administration of having links to terrorist organizations and was shut down in December.

Franciscan Fr. Peter Vasko, president and principal spokesman for the Holy Land Foundation, said the mix-up between the two groups has created an image problem for his organization, which is now considering changing its name. News reports seldom cited the full name of the Muslim charity when on Dec. 4 President Bush announced the closing of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The Washington, D.C., headquarters of Vasko’s organization received about 300 hate letters and calls from people who thought they were contacting the Muslim charity. “They just ranted and vented,” said Vasko. About 70 percent of people apologized once they were informed of their mistake, the priest added.

An ecumenical entity established by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the Holy Land Foundation aids Christian Palestinians with scholarships, housing and employment. Since 1996, the foundation has given away a million dollars in scholarships and has spent about $700,000 constructing new housing.

About 3 million Palestinians live in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza out of a total population of 8.7 million people. Of this 3 million, about 165,000 are Christians. Vasko said a century ago 13 percent of the local population was Christian. Today, only about 2 percent is.

Vasko said political and economic problems in the region are prompting a steady flow of emigration. Palestinians earn an average annual income of $5,000 to $6,000 in contrast to the $24,000 to $26,000 earned by Israelis, he said. The unemployment rate among Palestinians now hovers around 70 percent.

“We’re seeing a constant exodus leaving the country. Most church leaders say there will always be some sort of remnant, but if there is nothing done, Christianity could be on the verge of some sort of extinction in the Holy Land,” said Vasko, a New York native now living in Jerusalem.

In the United States for three weeks to meet with individual Catholic bishops and members of the media, Vasko spoke of growing friction between the Christian and Muslim communities in the Holy Land, aggravated by efforts to build a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Said to be the site where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the basilica is the largest church in Israel and a popular site for Christians on pilgrimage.

“There was never a problem before in Nazareth between Christians and Muslims,” said Vasko, who attributed deteriorating relations between the two communities to the influence of international politics.

Efforts to prevent a radical Islamic group called The Israeli Islamic Movement from building a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation have become something of a cause célèbre, with the pope and a wide assortment of local Christian religious leaders protesting to the Israeli government, which until recently had given tacit approval for the mosque construction. Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Supreme Muslim Council and the Anti-Defamation League in the United States have supported the Christians’ protests. Opponents of the mosque see its establishment beside the basilica as fomenting religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. The Israeli government has been accused of fostering discord between the two groups.

In January, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued an order temporarily halting further construction on the mosque until a board he appointed to review the project makes recommendations.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002