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The Franciscan Experience
We already had occasion to mention the difficulties the friars had to face to remain in Bethlehem. 600 years have passed since their arrival and they are still steadfast in their service to the Catholic world. Looking through these long years of history is not easy and at the same time is not fair to deal with it as a very light passing experience. To avoid this we chose to have a look at some documents preserved at the Franciscan Archives and other sources to give us a picture of this Franciscan presence in Bethlehem.
The friary seemed to have been fortified in such a way as to resemble a fortress. This is how it is described by visitors of the XIV century. Ludolfo of Sudheim writes in 1340 that the Church and the monastery at Bethlehem watch-towers and the bulwark in the form of a castle. Fr. Francesco Suriano, who twice was Custos of the Holy Land (1493-1495; 1512-1514) notes that the Church and the convent were surrounded "da mura et antemurale, cum alcuni revelini e turioni. E questi forono facti da Christiani per defensione" (by walls and counterwalls. with some ravelines and towers. And these were done by Christians for defence). The Frenchmen F.E.Roger in the first half of the 17th century finds the Convent surrounded walls so thick and high that they were "cannon proof". In the second half of the 18th century Fr. Giuseppe A from Milan notes that the Convent seen from afar resembled to a fortress, the same description found in the famous and accurate guide to Syria and Palestine, "Baedeker", in 1882.
It was behind these walls and towers that the Franciscans passed a great part of their 600 years presence in the Holy Land. And many a time they had to defend themselves from the onslaughts of the desert thieves and sometimes even of the reigning governors of the region. Here are some descriptions of these facts with the various stratagems that the Friars had to use to get out of certain situations. "there were in Bethlehem, writes the chronist Verniero, two Bedouin leaders, thieves and very sad, who much ill-treaded the friars". There was no other way to get rid of them so the friars opted to be friends with them and they also offered them, under payment, to "take in custody, day and night, the friary at Bethlehem". It seems that this agreement did not work out for long as in 1557 Fr. Bonifacio from Ragusa, Custos of the Holy Land of the time, entered an agreement with the tax collectors of Bethlehem to guard, day and night, the friary, an agreement that seemed to have worked out into the early seventeenth century.
The chronist Francesco Verniero da S. Severino writes that "On the eve of our father Saint Francis (3 October 1641) happened that (in the late afternoon the Convent was) besieged by the Turks of Bassa' (=Pascia' - the civil and military governor of Jerusalem) who forcefully wanted to enter; not being permitted by the friars they started to fire arrows and throw stones at all the windows that they could reach, breaking the window panes and causing much damage among shouting and threats....The Bassa' of Jerusalem was informed of this not only by the friars but also by those living in the town of Bethlehem who were also offended; the liar
governor promised to punish them and so he showed courtesy to the friars asking for sugar and candles which were promptly sent to him; but the treacherous tyrant never maintained the promise.
On the 11th November 1720 the Custos of the Holy Land writes to the Holy Congregation Propaganda Fide that some persons had made the population of Bethlehem rise against the Franciscans. He writes that the people "twice they tried to scale the walls of the Friary in Bethlehem and to open a breach in the walls around the same with arms, fireworks (=shooting with gun powder) and harquebuses."
On the 3rd of March 1760 Fr. Domenico from Venice, Custos of the time, writes to the Cardinal Prefect of the Holy Congregation de Propaganda Fide "I am obliged to inform your Excellency, how I succeeded, not without a miracle, the night of the 25th of last June, to furtively free all the religious of the family of Bethlehem from the hands of those Turkish tax-collectors, who with grave insult and deprecation had suddenly become the patrons of the friary and kept them in a pitiful slavery..."
On the 5th of August 1817 Fr. Salvatore Antonio from Malta, Custos of the time, writes again to the Holy Congregation about an incident which happened in 1811 when "twice the religious family of Bethlehem was threatened with their lives, having the Turks taken over a part of the Friary. In fact had they remained they would have been victims of death, had they not escaped immediately....; two friars, who wanted to stay behind, hoping to avoid the looting which was imminent, had to climb down the walls and escape to the countryside"
The sturdy walls protected the Christians of Bethlehem many a time for it was here that they gathered in face of trouble. This fact many a time offered a challenge to the friars. This is how it is described by Donat'Angelo Martucci who arrived in Bethlehem on the 3rd October 1606 and who recounts what the nine Franciscans living there told him: they "with the help of the local population who had found refuge in that holy place, were in arms to resist the Arabs (=Bedouins or desert thieves), who, knowing that inside the walls they had arms, did not dare to come near. But the friars had the job to give shelter to more than 500 persons (the number seems a bit exaggerated) who had retired to the friary afraid of the incursions and who had occupied the cloister, the garden and the same Church, with every family having an individual tent (sic!) with provisions and furnishings..."
Other documents recount how the Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox) being fed up with the harassment by the tax-collectors decided to take up arms after putting all their belongings and their women to the friary with the intent to throw out of their town the Moslems. This happened in the late eighteenth century and is recounted by Giovanni Mariti who says that there were also victims on both sides.
The archives recount a thousand incident of the sort. This does by no way mean that all year round the friars and the Christians were up in arms. It means only that many a time the sturdy walls of the "castle" of Bethlehem were the only refuge the Christians had against the perpetration of violence and injustice. Furthermore it shows the uncertainty the Christians lived in for many years.
We have already mentioned the fact that the friars had been thrown out of the Basilica. During these times they officiated in a the small medieval chapel which previously was used by the canons of St. Augustine. But the number of Catholics in Bethlehem was growing steadily. So much so that many a "convert" was faced with hard times. This was the reason why between 1545 and 1748 we find ten decrees by the Turkish authorities prohibiting any harassment as long as they paid the prescribed taxes. The growth was such that in 1882 the Franciscans replaced the medieval chapel of the canons of St. Augustine by a new church dedicated to St. Catherine, in front of which still stands the beautiful medieval cloister.