NEW YORK— Father Peter Vasko is president of the Holy Land Foundation, which assists Christians in Israel and the Palestinian territories with housing, education and jobs. He spoke to Register staff writer John Burger while touring the United States Jan. 14 to Feb. 6. He also reported to bishops on the situation in the Holy Land.

How have recent world events impacted Christians in the Holy Land?

Father Vasko: Christians are a minority within a minority in the Holy Land. There are 3.9 million Muslims in Israel, including the occupied territories; there are 4.7 million Jews. And there are 165,000 Christians. There's been a steady decrease in the number of Christians in the Holy Land. A lot has to do with the birth rate. For Christians it's 2.2%; for Muslims, 4.8%, and for Jews 3%. The majority of young Christians are leaving, so it's likely the growth rate will become smaller. By 2020, the growth rate of Christians will be 0% if it continues like this. These figures are from a 1999 study, “Why the Christians are Leaving,” by Bernard Sabella, a leading sociologist at Bethlehem University

Why are the Christians leaving?

In Israel, not including the occupied lands, they're leaving first of all because of the Islamization influence. Fringe groups, radical Muslims, are coming in. Secondly, there's an economic factor.

To encourage them to stay, we have a scholarship grant, and if someone wins one, he promises to stay in the Holy Land for four years. We then try to secure them employment.

But because of the second intifada, the West Bank and Gaza has been closed off to many principal Israeli cities to keep terrorists from entering — although we've seen over the years that there are all sorts of ways to get in.

But what price do you extract to punish a nation because of a dozen or so criminals? They're stereotyping the average Palestinian who has to have a job to feed his kids and pay for their education. They've made things impossible.

We just finished a 13-unit housing facility in Beit Hanina. Couples will be paying a symbolic rent, living with other Christian couples — and not emigrating. We're very proud of that. Because we're such a minority, they feel safe with other Christians around them.

For the last four or five years, Christians have been asking, if there is a Palestinian state, will there be discrimination against them in jobs and housing because they're Christians?

Why is it important to stem the flow of Christians from the Holy Land?

If we don't have a sense of who we are as Christians, of our religious roots and heritage, how can we call ourselves followers of Christ? This is where Christianity began. Its founder was born here. Abraham was born in Iraq; Mohammed in Mecca. The Church is not an external façade but a living community. If we don't do something about this there will not be a living community, but a collection of empty monuments.

What is the Muslim attitude toward Christians in the Holy Land?

At this point, there is basically a good rapport. But for the last four or five years there's been an under-current of fundamentalism coming from Algeria, Sudan and Egypt, making the road bumpier. In Nazareth, there were no problems between Muslims and Christians. But at the end of 1997 members of the Islamic Movement came in and took over a plaza outside the Basilica of the Annunciation, which the municipality had designated as a public square for the many Jubilee Year pilgrims. There was to be an information center there and a dropping off point. The Muslims squatted, put up a huge tent and said, “We're not leaving.” The local police did nothing, and the Israeli government looked the other way.

Without impunity, the Muslims have been attacking the Christians going in to the Basilica. In 1998, they burned Christian-owned shops, and the police simply looked on. Now they're building an illegal mosque in spite of a court injunction. Once again, law enforcement has looked the other way.

On Jan. 9, we, along with the International Coalition for Nazareth, protested, and construction came to a temporary halt. But it's not permanently stopped. If the mosque is built, it will be a permanent source of extreme tension between Christians and Muslims, Jews and Christians and, in the end Muslim and Jewish relations. This radical group doesn't represent moderate Muslims in Nazareth. Israel is very well aware of them, that their publications are anti-West and anti-Israeli. It will have a very detrimental effect on Christians’ trust in Israel, which promised to protect them and their places of worship.

The basilica is now under siege. Stones are thrown at worshipers as they go in. There will be further Christian emigration from even Israel proper if this mosque is allowed to be built there. The Islamic Movement leaders have said, “If the mosque is not built, the Christian leaders and Israel's leaders will pay the consequences.” A week later they indicated that there would be a bloodbath.

This is why this thing has to stop. If not, they will have created a vacuum of power that is considered very dangerous, with volatility against citizens and violence in a city that never before experienced violence.

We're not opposed to Islam, but we are opposed to violence and intimidation, to squatting on public property. Under [former Prime Minister Ehud] Barak they received government approval but had to wait for a building permit. We're asking [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to take away that approval and go back to the original plan.

There are 11 mosques in Nazareth. Why do they need to build one under the Basilica of the Annunciation?

Saudi Arabia, King Faisal and Yasser Arafat are against it. Bush and the Pope asked them not to build there. Faisal offered $10 million for them to build it anywhere else in Nazareth, and they said no. It's more than, “I want to build it here.” It's a statement that they are here to stay and people will be under the control of their understanding of what government is instead of a democracy.

How would you characterize Israel's response to the plight of Palestinian Christians?

There's a general indifference on the part of officials and a majority of the population. They don't identify you as a Christian or a Muslim but as a Palestinian. And as a Palestinian you are the enemy. There's an advantage for the Israeli government to keep Christians here — it's the connecting link they have with the rest of Christianity, and Christianity exists mainly in the Western world. Israel is the cradle of Christianity. The Jews are our elder brothers; they have to take care of their younger brothers — but there's no great interest to do so.