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SPECIAL HOLY LAND REPORT: Franciscans and the Holy Land

Interview With Vicar of Custody

JERUSALEM, MARCH 14, 2005 (Zenit) - The Custody of the Holy Land was the first to promote dialogue and peace in the Middle East, a mission the Franciscans continue today, says a religious.

The Custody is part of the Order of Friars Minor that maintains 26 holy sites that represent the fundamental stages of the life of Christ and the Holy Family.

Father Artemio Vitores, vicar of the Custody, has been in the Holy Land for 34 years. The Custody today is composed of 200 Franciscans from 35 nations.

In this interview, Father Vitores talks about the development and mission of the Custody over the centuries.

Q: What legacy did St. Francis leave in the Holy Land?

Father Vitores: The destruction of the Holy Sepulcher by Caliph Hakim in A.D. 970 opened the doors to the age of the Crusades, that is, to war and blood. St. Francis preferred to conquer the holy sites through the method of dialogue.

His first rule, "Non Volata," says: "Brothers who go to the Holy Land must not engage in litigation or disputes, must be at the service of all, and manifest with their life that they are Christians."

If moved by the Spirit, they preached. This attitude allowed them to be free to move in Mameluk territories.

Q: Was Francis, then, the first to use the weapon of dialogue?

Father Vitores: He was the first to use the weapon of dialogue and love at the time of the Crusades. The Franciscans desired to be at the service of all, Christians and Muslims, and showed that they had a modern universalistic spirit ahead of their time.

The protection of the holy sites was the fundamental reason for the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land, which they exercised through enormous difficulties and conflicts. The Franciscans initiated a social service of assistance and formation around the sites.

In the reception hall of our convent, there are five paintings that exemplify the Franciscans' mission in the Holy Land. Among these, there are two portraits of Robert of Anjou and Sancha of Majorca, sovereigns of Naples, who acquired the Cenacle from the Sultan of Egypt in 1333, and gave it to the Franciscans, who established their first monastery there.

In 1342, Pope Clement IV institutionalized the mission of the Franciscan Custody in the Holy Land.

When Pope John Paul II went to Nazareth in 2000, he said that God's providence willed that St. Francis, the saint of peace, dialogue and love, protect the holy sites.

Q: We return to the Franciscans' social mission. In what does it consist?

Father Vitores: The Franciscans sought to provide instruction, work and a home. Around the churches that were erected next to the holy sites, they opened schools, artisan workshops and built housing. In this mission, which still continues today, the Franciscans were the vanguard in a region of Muslim majority.

In 1520, they opened the first school, while the Turks, who dominated the Holy Land for four centuries until World War I, opened their first school in 1892. In 1808, the Franciscans decided that non-Catholic boys, namely Orthodox, not be obliged to become Catholics to study in their schools.

In 1841, they instituted the first girls' school in the Holy Land, while the first Jewish girls' school was instituted in 1864, and the first Muslim girls' school in 1892.

From 1925 to 1948, our Holy Land College welcomed Christians, Muslim and Jews anticipating modern ecumenism. In 1957, the Franciscans introduced in their schools the study of the Koran, that is, before the Second Vatican Council.

The Franciscans had an important role also in the promotion of languages. In our parochial schools Italian and French was taught, training translators and guides, while our press published in Arabic, contributing to its rescue from decadence in Palestine. The Franciscans opened mother-of-pearl and olive oil workshops and promoted other arts and trades. In addition, they constructed accommodations for needy Christians.

Q: Of what does the protection of the holy sites consist?

Father Vitores: Conservation and restoration, archaeological and biblical study of the veracity of the sites, reconstruction, appreciation of the spirituality of the sites and of their fruitfulness.

Q: The status quo regulates life at the Holy Sepulcher and the Basilica of the Nativity. Is there no other interreligious institution that regulates the religious sites, such as the mixed commission of Christians, Muslims and Jews proposed by Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, in 1922?

Father Vitores: This is a sore point and religions have not made the necessary efforts to overcome the division that still exists among them. Meetings are organized, but a permanent interreligious commission was never instituted to regulate religious affairs, when in reality there is a need for it, in particular in Jerusalem.

Because of its universal character, the Catholic Church -- despite the fact that Catholics represent less than 2% in Jerusalem -- would be a bridge to bring together again several faiths, Christian and non-Christian.

Q: You have lived in the Holy Land for more than 30 years. How has the role of religions evolved in the Holy Land?

Father Vitores: Unfortunately, I must say that we have witnessed a radicalization of the role of religions, which have always tried to assume a political role in society. The emergence of Orthodox political parties, above all among the Jews and Muslims, demonstrates it.

The creation of Israel as a state with a strong religious identity -- I am not questioning the creation of Israel, to avoid misunderstandings -- has therefore had a role in this sense. The result is that the Orthodox political formations have gained ground, and with these formations dialogue is not easy, either on the Israeli side, or on the Palestinian.

What will happen? Jerusalem's situation worries me. Orthodox Jewish groups received 40% approval and are growing. Wherever they control the local administrations, they apply their rules of life to public affairs -- timetables, transit -- thus discriminating against those who do not follow them. I hope that in the future we won't come to the point of limiting access to the old city to non-Jews.

Q: How do you support yourselves financially?

Father Vitores: With the Good Friday collection, also called "of the Holy Sites," promoted by the Holy See in all churches worldwide, and with the support of faithful through "Holy Land Commissions," which depend directly on the Custody and are spread throughout the world. Government aid is no longer allowed, so in some cases our mission's projects are supported in an indirect way.

The Spanish government, for example, finances some measures for Palestinian Christians as a policy of "help to minorities."

With the intifada, for example, we made ourselves responsible for the support of the poorest Christian families by allocating family quotas of 80 euros [$108] per month. Our parishes -- many Franciscans are also parish priests -- have replaced Israel and the Palestinian Authority in their social assistance responsibility.


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