Few other institutions in Israel, if any, can boast that they’re celebrating their 800th anniversary. But Custodia Terrae Sanctae, the local representative of the Catholic Church, this week celebrated the 800th anniversary of the arrival of its first monks, who landed in Acre in 1217, toward the end of the Crusades.
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The Custodia is the pope’s agent in charge of Christian holy sites in Israel. It is also a Jerusalem-based order of Franciscan monks. The monks are proud of the fact that even during the hardest times under Muslim rule, when all other Christian groups left the Holy Land, the Franciscans remained.
But in recent years, some of the communities under the Custodia’s aegis have been in danger once again.
The organization’s head, or custos, is Francesco Patton, who was appointed about a year ago. In his first interview with the Israeli media, he said the Mideast might be on the brink of a historic change in the map of Christianity, because the civil wars in Syria and Iraq threaten to uproot those countries’ ancient Christian communities.
“I think today, we’re experiencing what Jesus said, that when we’re a small people, we have nothing to fear,” he said. “When we’re small, what’s important is that we’re full of meaning.”
The biggest crisis within his jurisdiction in recent years has been the Syrian civil war. Before the war began, Syria had around two million Christians, including 300,000 in Aleppo. Patton doesn’t know how many remain in Syria, since many are internally displaced. But in Aleppo, he believes there are only about 30,000.
Many fled to Europe, South America and Australia. Many more apparently went from Aleppo to Latakia, which was spared destruction because it never left the Assad regime’s control.
The fate of Syria’s Christian community is especially important because of Syria’s importance in Christian history.
“The Christian presence in Syria is very ancient,” Patton explained. “Christianity originated in Jerusalem, but its second place was Syria. It was on the road to Damascus that St. Paul experienced his revelation, and the first community to accept Christianity was Antioch. From there, Christianity spread to Europe.”
In his Italian hometown of Taranto, he added, the local basilica has a fourth-century grave, “which is the grave of a Christian who came from Syria.”
Patton has visited Syria several times, most recently about six months ago, to try to aid the community. Aleppo is only just starting to recover.
“This past summer, there were camps for children, and more than 800 children attended,” he said. “Sixty couples from the community registered for marriage and 20 families have already returned. That’s very few, but these are hopeful signs. One community leader told me, ‘It’s not so hard to build a house; it’s much harder to build relationships among people.’”
The Christian community in Iraq has also suffered, and to a lesser extent, so has Lebanon’s community. But Middle Eastern Christians generally find it easier to move to the West than their Muslim countrymen, which is why there’s also growing Christian emigration from North Africa.
Patton said he’s not aware of any small communities that have completely disappeared, but acknowledged that this could happen. Nevertheless, he added, “because I trust in God, I think these communities will continue to exist.”
Last Monday, hundreds of Franciscan monks, recognizable by their brown robes belted with a cord, packed the hall of St. Savior’s Monastery in Jerusalem’s Old City for the opening of the anniversary celebrations. A papal representative read out a message from the pope.
“I encourage you to continue to be happy in your support of our friars, especially the poorest and the weakest, in the education of our youth, in the welcoming of the elderly and in the care of the sick, concretely living out the works of mercy on a daily basis,” the message said.
The celebrations, which will include conferences and visits by senior church officials, will continue for about two years, until the 800th anniversary of another key event: the meeting between St. Francis, the order’s founder, and Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219.
Meanwhile, even if the Syrian community is emptying out, new Christian communities, founded largely by migrant workers from the Philippines and other countries, have arisen elsewhere in the Middle East in recent decades, including in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Altogether, Patton said, three million Catholics currently live in the Gulf, though those in Saudi Arabia must pray in private houses, since churches are banned.
“As Franciscans, we see the 800 years we’ve been here as an expression of divine providence,” he added.