In this year, in which we are celebrating the 800th anniversary of the pilgrimage of Saint Francis of Assisi to the Holy Land, on the occasion of Hanukkah and Christmas, permit me to greet you all with the salutation that was so dear to our founder: “May the Lord give you peace.”
I hope that this blessing will be fulfilled this year and will begin with the feasts of light that are being celebrated in these days.
The past teaches us that dialogue can offer a little sign of light and peace even in times of crisis or conflict between believers of different religions. Eight hundred years ago, in a time of clash of civilizations during the fifth Crusade, St. Francis was able to cross the war lines, to meet the Sultan Al Malik Al Kamel and enjoy a fraternal meeting with him. It was not a meeting between enemies during a cease fire, but an encounter between men of great souls and open minds, although of different culture and religion.
That meeting of 800 years ago is a wonderful image of the fact that encounter, friendship and brotherhood between people of different culture and faith is possible, even in difficult times. It was after that meeting that St. Francis was able to visit the Holy Land and that our Franciscan presence became rooted and developed as a peaceful and fraternal presence here in the Land of the Holy One.
With that same spirit on February 4, His Holiness Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahamad al-Tayyib, signed an important document together on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” This document recognizes a series of values common to Abrahamic religions; it refuses all kinds of exploitation in the name of God and all acts of violence committed in His name, especially against holy places belonging to any religion and against people who are praying and worshipping.
Unfortunately, during the last year, we have seen violence exploding in an inhuman and brutal way against people who were praying. This violence has struck the Jewish community in the United States, the Muslim community in New Zealand, as well as the Christian community in Sri Lanka and Burkina Faso. On the other hand, there are encouraging events, for example recently when in a London subway, a Muslim woman protected a Jewish family that was being verbally attacked.
As religious leaders we refuse, condemn and deplore all kinds of exploitation of religion, and especially the religious justification of acts of violence. When Pope John Paul II came to Jerusalem in March 2000, he reminded us that the role of religious leaders is, above all, that of “promoting peace and reciprocal understanding.” (John Paul II, Speech to religious leaders in Jerusalem, March 23, 2000.)
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We are, however, afraid that in this season in which the great religious leaders are condemning the exploitation of religion and acts of violence committed in the name of religion, some forms of exploitation of religion are being undertaken in a short-sighted way by certain leaders and opinion makers.
In these days, when Jews celebrate Hanukkah and Christians Christmas, we all need to reflect the image of the same Muslim woman who protected Jews in London. This is the light that should lead us all at a time when extremism, nationalism and intolerance are threatening around us.
We know that the deep meaning of Hanukkah is related to the gift of light in time of oppression, that means the gift of hope and truth and freedom in times of brutal aggression and occupation: political, cultural and religious. We know that the Christmas Angels’ song when Jesus was born in Bethlehem is: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14), and it is also a song of peace in a time in which peace was granted by arms and therefore was not a fruit of human fraternity, reciprocal welcoming or peaceful living together.
For this reason we wish that all those who have some responsibility, influence and power have also the ability to build a strategy of peace for the common good of all citizens, here in Israel and all around the world, in such a way that we all become truly equal in being subjects of rights and duties, independently of our religious faith, culture and nationality.
May the light of Hanukkah bring hope, truth and freedom to everybody and may the song of Christmas bring love, peace and fraternity.
Fr. Francesco Patton is Custos of the Holy Land, guardian of Christian holy places in the Holy Land on behalf of the Vatican.