Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info:
The Arab Christian communities

"Life and Death of the Eastern Christians". This is the title of a famous book written recently. Statistics are important but can be wrong. More important than statistics is the fact that the Christian must live the death and resurrection like his Master, since the disciple is not greater than the Master. Statistics are very often false. Nobody speaks of the Christians who arrived from Russia. The Rabbis accept now that 50% of the immigrants are Christians. And how many of the Falashas who arrived from Ethiopia are Christians? We are not going to make a census, since David who wanted to make a cense was punished by God. But we have to note that Christians were 25% of the population of Jerusalem in 1840 and only 4% in 1967 and 2% in 1994.

Among the Christians of the Holy Land some are from Arab origin, others from Jewish origin. During the Week of Prayer for the unity of Christians many believers come together. The Ecumenical Institute of Tantur has the aim of bringing Christians together. Anglicans have developed a liberation theology for the Palestinians (N. Ateek) which was adopted by the Melchites (G. Khoury). In 1974, the Middle East Council of Churches was brought into being at its first general assembly in Nicosia, Cyprus. At its fifth general assembly of 1990, the seven Catholic Churches of the Middle east joined the council as its fourth family, the first three being the Eastern Ortodox, the oriental Orthodox and the evangelical families. Under the presidency of the Apostolic Nuncio all the Ordinaries of the Holy Land and the Custos of the Holy Land meet every month since 1991 for praying and sharing common problems. The Greek, Armenian and Latin Patriarchs have their monthly meetings and have published many documents together, especially the famous memorandum on Jerusalem.

Divisions in the Church are the results of the schisms which took place in history. In the year 451 the council of Chalcedon in defining the two natures of Christ resulted in splits for Church unity. In the year 1054 the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, rejected the authority of the pope and a new schism was introduced in the Church.

Other division occurred in the western Church with the Reformation of Luther. Regarding Eastern Christianity, since the 16 century many Churches have entered into union with Rome and formed the Melkites, the Catholic Copts and the Armenian Catholics.

After the Crusades the Franciscans were put in charge of many shrines. The military approach of the crusaders was an error. So the sons of Saint Francis were asked to dialogue with the Muslims. The Custody of the Holy Land was founded in the year 1217 and received a papal mandate in the year 1342 to protect the Holy Places. Traditionally, the acquisition and maintenance of the shrines and the assistance of the pilgrims visiting those shrines has been its principal activity. Over 40 shrines are maintained by the Franciscans. Until the 19th Century the Franciscans were the only ones responsible for the pastoral life of the catholic Church in the Holy Land. Each parish had its own school. In 1847 Pope Pius IX restored the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem at a time when Protestants missionaries had gone there who were looked upon as competitors. The re-establishment of the Latin Patriarcate in Jerusalem marked the return and the first arrival of many other religious Orders and Congregations at the service of the Latin Diocese. Sixty parishes distributed in towns and villages are engaged in the pastoral care of the faithful. Each parish has a school providing education for its own community. Today the Catholic schools are today 104.

Franciscans are still in charge of the parishes of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jaffa, Cana, Jericho , Ramle and Tiberias. More than 20 parishes in the Middle East are under the care of the Custody. Many schools are still functioning today. During the scholastic year 1998-1999, 9000 students studied in schools of the Custody, 5700 of them being Christians and the remaining coming from non Christian religions. The girl schools of the Custody are run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The Custody maintains over 400 homes for Christians in Jerusalem with other housing units being planned. The cultural activities of the Franciscan are well known. They have the oldest Printing Press in Jerusalem and run a Major Theological Seminary. In 1923 a study Center for the Bible was founded at the convent of the Flagellation. Many archaeological projects have been undertaken to better understand the origins of our faith and the history of the Mother Church.

Among the social work done the Franciscans there are 21 colleges and three orphanages. Pastoral activities includ scoutism for young people and the Legion of Mary for adults. The Church must still give a proper place to laity. Christians are always tempted by immigration since their future seems uncertain.

The presence of the Christian in the Middle East in the midst of so many difficulties is a miracle. The force of the communities comes from the celebration of Eucharist which permits to actualize the strength of God’s forgiveness. During Lent season the Christian communities celebrate the night between Saturday and Sunday with vigils, using a liturgical office recorded by the Pilgrim Egeria. Christian proclaim the message of the death and Resurrection of Jesus which calls to new life. The real strength of the Christian is their poverty. Their unique aim is to reconcile the sons of Abraham, especially the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael. Ecumenism is part of every day life, since at school there is no difference between the religious confessions. Even marriages are celebrated between different Christian confessions.

Christians will always remain a little flock. However they have no need to fear since the Lord gives them the Kingdom.

Frédéric Manns

Created / Updated Monday, March 06, 2000 at 13:18:15