I have the privilege of serving and leading the Franciscan friars living in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East. For over 800 years, we have honored a sacred calling as custodians of the sacred sites of this Holy Land: we do so as members of the Catholic Church, alongside the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches and on behalf of the Universal Church. We are helping to preserve the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which marks the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our ministry is centered on the “living stones”, as Saint Peter calls them, the precious people who make up the Christian community in the region. We love our neighbors, care for the vulnerable, and give good news to the poor. We provide schools, health care, humanitarian support and in parts of the Holy Land more than half of all public services. The life-changing love of Christ is offered by modern-day disciples from Bethlehem, the city of Christ’s birth, to Jerusalem, the site of his death and resurrection.
Yet despite two thousand years of good and loyal service, our presence is precarious and our future is threatened. Where we once had 20% of the population of Jerusalem, today the Christian community accounts for less than 2%.
In recent years, the lives of many Christians have been made unbearable by radical local groups with extremist ideologies. It seems that their goal is to free the Old City of Jerusalem from its Christian presence, and even from the Christian Quarter. In recent years, we have suffered because of the desecration of our holy places, the vandalism of our churches, the offenses against our priests, monks and faithful. The frequency of these hate crimes makes families and communities who have lived here for generations feel unwelcome in their own homes. These radical groups do not represent the government or the people of Israel. But as with any extremist faction, a radical minority can all too easily take a toll on the lives of many, especially if their activities go unchecked and their crimes go unpunished.
They are waging a war of attrition against a community that has no desire to fight. As for the founder of my Order, Saint Francis, our vocation is to reject violence and to respond with acts of compassion and love. To this end, we remain dedicated in our service to the community, our defense of the holy places, and our determination to keep our witness alive at the epicenter of the Christian faith. The Franciscans, as well as our brothers and sisters from other Christian Churches, are committed to remaining the continued presence of Christ in this place. But to do this, we need help.
In his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”, writes Pope Francis, “in the face of current attempts to eliminate or ignore others, [I hope] we can show ourselves capable of responding with a new vision of brotherhood and social friendship that goes beyond words. It is a call for all of us to love our neighbor, as Jesus demonstrates in the gospel – and as the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan tells us, our “neighbor” is not only those who live near us. , or look like us, or believe the same things, but anyone in need, near or far.
Our call to the world is as follows: the Christian community of the Holy Land is your neighbor, and we are in need. Here, we recognize and help our neighbor on a daily basis, regardless of his religion or origin. We ask for this same support so that we can continue to preserve the rich diversity of this Holy Land. Noisy as their actions are, radical groups cannot be allowed to undermine the presence of a community or the beautiful diversity that makes Jerusalem the spiritual capital of the world.
This Christmas, like every year, I will be in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the place where it happened. I will pray, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, that the Lord will grant us all peace.