by Fr. George Lewett O.F.M.
While in initial formation as a Franciscan of the Holy Land in the United States. The Guardian of the community, who was also teaching me and my confreres a course in faith renewal, told us that, unlike soldiers who get stationed in the Middle East, we would not be going there with weapons. We were to be peaceful crusaders like St. Francis of Assisi, our founder. This great saint, who came to the Holy Land 800 years ago on a pilgrimage of peace, did not carry any arms with him. During this year that we are commemorating his visit to the Holy Land and his meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil in June of 1219, it is particularly fitting to recall the fact that the two friars, ‘Francesco’ and ‘Illuminato’, crossed over enemy lines without arms, and without any protection on the part of the Crusader army. Of course they could have been martyred, which some say was what they were seeking, but it was not God’s will. Over the centuries we have come to understand this encounter as a gesture of peace and reconciliation between enemies, and an example of the possibility of dialogue as a path to brotherhood between all peoples.
After 800 years have passed since this period of medieval history, the land of the Bible is still one of missionary activity. Due to the political and social climate of the Holy Land, it is generally not an option to proclaim the Gospel openly, so therefore there is an emphasis on giving silent witness to our Christian faith. Throughout the centuries of the Franciscan presence here, the Christian community has survived thanks to the support of the friars and other religious living in the midst of the local population. In the holy places, like Bethlehem or Nazareth, where the majority of the inhabitants are Muslim, the two communities live together in peace for the most part, and so there has been less religious fanaticism that can easily lead to violence. The same can be said for other places, such as Ramleh or Abu Ghosh, where the Christian and Muslim Arabs live side by side with the Jews. The Franciscan presence in solidarity with the local Christian community has always acted as a leaven to promote peaceful existence between peoples of different faiths here in the war-torn Middle East.
It is certainly providential that the Franciscans have been present in the Holy Land for centuries, and were given the mission to act as the official guardians of the Holy Places. In addition to this, we also exercise a pastoral ministry, including being involved in helping the poor, and in general, the local population, whether Christian or not. It is well-known that the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict has elicited a constant exodus of the Arab-Christian population. Also Muslims have left their homeland, but this phenomenon has been particularly striking with regards to the Christian community who generally have more resources in order to emigrate. One of the ways that the Custody of the Holy Land has encouraged the ‘living stones’ to remain, is by providing low-cost housing in such places as Jerusalem, Beit Hanina(a northern suburb of Jerusalem), in Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, as well as in Bethlehem. The presence of Christians in the Holy Land, is not only crucial so that their role as being living stones would continue, and prevent the Churches from becoming museums, but to help promote understanding between the East and West, and to be a leaven that also promotes peace between different peoples.