I have the privilege to serve and lead the Franciscan Friars living in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East. For over 800 years, we have honoured a sacred calling as custodians of the sacred sites in 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 help preserve the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which marks the site of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
Our ministry centres upon the “living stones” as St. Peter calls them, the precious people who make up the area’s Christian community. We love our neighbours, care for the vulnerable and offer good news to the poor. We provide schools, healthcare, 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 town of Christ’s birth, to Jerusalem, the site of his death and resurrection.
Yet despite two thousand years of faithful service, our presence is precarious and our future is at risk. Where once we numbered 20 per cent of the population of Jerusalem, today the Christian community counts for less than 2 per cent.
In recent years, the lives of many Christians have been made unbearable by radical local groups with extremist ideologies. It seems that their aim is to free the Old City of Jerusalem from its Christian presence, even the Christian quarter. In the last years we suffered because of the desecration of our holy sites, the vandalization of our churches, offences against our priests, monks and worshippers. The frequency of these hate crimes leaves families and communities who have lived here for generations feeling 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 too easily burden the lives of many, especially if their activities go unchecked and their crimes are unpunished.
They are waging a war of attrition against a community with no desire to fight. As with the founder of my Order, St. Francis, our calling is to reject violence and reply with acts of compassion and love. To this end, we remain dedicated in our service towards the community, our defence of the holy places and our determination to maintain our living witness at the epicentre of the Christian faith. The Franciscans, along with our brothers and sisters in the other Christian Churches, are committed to remaining as the continuing presence of Christ in this place. But to do this, we need help.
In his encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”, Pope Francis writes, “in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, [I hope] we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that goes beyond words.” This is a call for us all to love our neighbour, as Jesus demonstrates in the gospel – and as the gospel story of the Good Samaritan tells us, our “neighbour” is not just those who live near us, or look like us, or believe the same things, but anyone in need, near or far.
Our appeal to the world is this: the Christian community of the Holy Land is your neighbour, and we are in need. Here we daily recognise and help our neighbour, regardless of their religion or background. We ask for that same support so that we can continue to preserve the rich diversity of this Holy Land. However loud their actions speak, radical groups cannot be permitted to undermine the presence of any community or the beautiful diversity which makes Jerusalem the spiritual capital of the world.
This Christmas, as every year, I will be in Bethlehem, celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the place where it happened. I will be praying, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, that the Lord will grant peace to us all.