Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari: ‘Christians Are Suffering’

Editor’s note: This interview by the Good Newsroom with Monsignor Peter I. Vaccari, president of CNEWA, took place ahead of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s departure for Israel on 12 April and the subsequent attacks by Iran on 13 April. Cardinal Dolan and the delegation have since been reported safe in Jerusalem and the visit is continuing as planned.

This interview was originally published by The Good Newsroom.

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, announced on April 3 that he would visit Israel and Palestine from Friday, April 12 through Thursday, April 18, 2024 in his role as Chair of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).  While there, the cardinal will meet with local Christian, Jewish, and Islamic religious leaders, visit various social service and humanitarian activities, as well as mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

CNEWA was founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926 as an instrument of love and a sign of hope for those in need scattered throughout the historic but troubled lands of the ancient Eastern churches — the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India, and Eastern Europe. The Pontifical Mission was founded by Pope Pius XII in 1949 and serves as CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East. The Archbishop of New York serves as ex-officio Chair of the Board of Trustees.

CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission work entirely through the local church, offering aid to all in need, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. 

Accompanying Cardinal Dolan on his visit is Monsignor Peter Vaccari, President of CNEWA and of the Pontifical Mission. Prior to his departure from New York, Monsignor Vaccari talked to The Good Newsroom about the upcoming trip.

The Good Newsroom (TGN): It’s been six months now since the October 7 attacks. What is the situation for Christians on the ground?

Monsignor Peter Vaccari (Monsignor Vaccari): The Christians are suffering. One thinks in terms of, and with horror, with regard to the innocent Israelis who were massacred on October 7. One thinks in terms of the innocent Palestinians in Gaza in particular, where I visited with two members of the staff here in June 2022. We recall sights that we saw that are no longer there; we recall people that we met that are no longer there. 

The Christian population in Gaza has always been low. We have one Catholic parish there. So most of the Christians that are in Gaza are Orthodox Christians. CNEWA has a good working relationship with Catholics, Eastern Catholics — that’s our mandate — as well as with Orthodox, whether they are in Gaza or in other parts of Israel or Palestine or wherever. 

Christians in all the places where [CNEWA] works are in the minority. That is part of the experience of CNEWA’s world. There is with that the grace, the blessing of being in collaboration with and working with non-Christians.

CNEWA is trying to give support, especially to young Palestinians where CNEWA could in any way be involved in giving them employment. So when there was the olive-picking season in the autumn, we did that out of concern for the young Palestinian population.

It has been devastating in terms of the loss of life, both the innocent Israelis, and the innocent Palestinians, be they Christians or be they Muslims.

TGN: What is the purpose of Cardinal Dolan’s visit? 

Monsignor Vaccari: Cardinal Dolan, as the Archbishop of New York, serves as the chairman of CNEWA’s international board of trustees. This has been the plan since Pope Pius XI founded CNEWA back in 1926. 

Cardinal Dolan, in his capacity as chair of the international board of trustees, every two or three years likes to travel to the places where CNEWA is at work.

This year is the 75th anniversary for all of the Middle Eastern offices. Cardinal Dolan wanted to mark the 75th anniversary, and the place that he picked to do that is Jerusalem because that’s where our office is.

TGN: What can the average parishioner do to support CNEWA’s work?

Monsignor Vaccari: The three things that I ask all the time are, number one, prayer. I don’t think any of us can minimize the power of prayer. The whole fall of communism in Eastern Europe was not because there was a war, it was because of cultural factors, (St.) John Paul II, and other political factors, and prayer.

Number two, to be informed and to know that the oldest Catholics are not the Catholics in any other country than where CNEWA is working. In some of our areas, the language of the liturgy of some of these early churches is the same as what Jesus used.

When one thinks in terms of  the evangelization of India, St. Thomas the Apostle, on my visit to India in January (2023), we were not far from where St. Thomas evangelized. 

Third, to whatever extent people can, I very much appreciate donations. Where CNEWA is working, we are looking at the people who are the beneficiaries of our great donors are people who are being persecuted, they are suffering because of war, they are suffering because of famine, such as in Ethiopia, or in Eritrea. Even the difficulties we are having in India. And then there are places with natural disasters, like in Turkey and Syria. But we are called to work there because of the number of Christians that are on the ground. 

This interview has been edited for content and length.

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