Chroniclers report that Francis of Assisi, a pilgrim to the Holy Land in the 13th century, crossed enemy lines during the Crusades to share the gospel with the Sultan of Egypt. Although the content of the proceedings is shrouded in legend, historians say that the sultan appreciated the message, as testified by the fact that Francis was sent back safely to European territory. Christian Information Center director Father Athanasius says this event exemplifies Franciscan ministry in the Holy Land. "In our order, Francis always had a reputation of being a man of peace. He was just that. Long before the notions of pacifism, he was a minister of peace and reconciliation. It was natural that the mission here would flow from that - that our approach would be different. For example, we've always been unarmed." The Franciscan brother talks in soft, measured, almost liturgical tones that seldom betray his Texan roots. "We had some of the first schools in the Holy Land. Our schools were open to non-Catholics as early as the 17th century. Also in the 17th century we had a big pharmacy in Jerusalem. Anybody who needed healing would be received by the Franciscan pharmacist. We're always open to people in need." The Franciscan presence in the Holy Land dates to the 13th century, but ceased in 1291 when Muslim armies ousted the crusaders from Acre, their last stronghold. The Franciscans retreated to Cyprus and looked for opportunities to return. Their hopes were partially fulfilled in 1328, when the pope endorsed two Franciscans on their annual tour of the Holy Land to review the status of the holy places. Five years later a Franciscan brother received permission to care for the Cenacle (Upper Room or site of the Last Supper) and conduct mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later that century their number had increased to 20 friars. Franciscans in Israel currently number almost 200 and are involved in ministries as diverse as education, music, meditative retreats and services to migrant workers. Interestingly, the largest Catholic population is non-indigenous. Members of the 35,000-strong Filipino community, about 80 percent of whom are women, work in Israel usually as caregivers for the elderly or handicapped. Franciscan Father Angelo, a Philippine native but currently an American citizen, serves this community as a circuit priest. He arranges for rooms to be rented in various parts of Israel (such as Netanya or Rehovot, where there is no fixed Catholic population) in order to pursue his ministry. These workers "are employed mostly by Israeli Jews who came from Europe before and after World War II. The unique challenge of every Filipino caregiver is to show by word and deed the true face of Christianity to the Jews who have suffered at the hands of Christian Europeans throughout the ages," Father Angelo says. The demise of the Palestinian Christian community has been well publicized. Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem, is a good example. During the 1960s Bethlehem boasted a Christian majority, but now they represent only 15-20% of the population. "It's hard to find a girl around here who'll marry you if you're planning on staying," says one young Catholic merchant. Two other young Christians say: "We're going to look in Galilee for wives." The reasons offered for the emigration tide vary. They include Muslim fundamentalism, the security barrier, unemployment and the loss of tourism. Regardless, the Franciscans hope to change the pattern by offering a variety of programs including jobs, charitable projects and subsidized housing and education. According to Father Amjad, serving at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, "In 2003 we noticed how many people had left and decided to start a job program. We renovated houses employing local workers. It's a part-time job in which we pay them 40% of a regular salary. We've repaired 130 houses so far and given employment to more than 200 families." The government of Spain underwrites a program in which medical bills are paid. "No one here can afford a big hospital like Hadassah, but we pay those fees for them even if the illness is very expensive... leukemia, for example." Amjad adds that there are programs for the elderly which pay for utilities (water, gas and electricity) as well as scholarships for university students. The Franciscans maintain hundreds of housing units in the Jerusalem area (including Bethlehem and Ramallah). Joseph, who works at a Franciscan-run hostel and lives in Catholic housing, insists: "Without the Franciscans you wouldn't find any Christian Palestinians here. They would 100% disappear." The Franciscans also support five Terra Sancta schools in Israel and the West Bank, with a total enrollment of 5,000 children in kindergarten through grade 12. Excluding the living expenses of the friars and sisters who run the schools, they are subsidized with $1.5 million annually, as tuition fees are often negligible. Musical education is provided by Jerusalem's Magnificat Institute, which offers lessons to about 200 students annually. Franciscan Father Amando, who holds a master's degree in organ performance from an Italian conservatory, directs the institute. Classes in voice, violin, organ, flute, music composition and music theory are offered to dozens of students yearly. There are also classes for children as young as five. A casual tour through the Magnificat Institute reveals Haig Aram Vosgueritchian, an Armenian Christian, practicing the organ. A student at the institute for 10 years, he has been accepted for graduate study at the Arrigo Pedrollo Conservatory in Italy. Further investigation finds five-year-old Palestinian Ya'acub, who reads the note "A" on sheet music, then plucks it (or something pretty close to "A," according to his teacher) on a violin. PERHAPS the smallest Catholic population in Israel is the Hebrew-speaking community. Numbering about 400, they meet in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Beersheba and Haifa, employing a Hebrew liturgy that reflects Christianity's Jewish roots. Hebrew-speaking Catholics have been meeting in Israel since the 1950s, when a group in Jaffa, initiated by a Dominican monk, requested (and received) permission from the Vatican to worship in Hebrew - a noteworthy petition because until the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in the mid-1960s Catholics were required to use the Latin liturgy. The community's origins were varied. Many were Jews who converted to Catholicism outside Israel, while others were members of mixed-faith families or were simply in Israel for professional reasons. The common language of Hebrew motivated the assembly. Catholics arrived in Israel and were drawn to others who wanted to worship in Hebrew. Even today, when there are a variety of linguistic options, many Catholics want to worship in Hebrew. About 60 people attend mass on Sunday nights at Jerusalem's Community of St. James. "We're a small congregation, so contact with people is more personal. You get more into the problems of the people and know their needs. The sermons here are very personal," explains Father Apolinary, the parish priest. Of the Israelis - a majority in the congregation - the Franciscan insists, "These are people that live the reality of Israel. They are Israeli citizens 100%. They serve in the army and fulfill their responsibilities to the country. They endure all the problems and also believe in Yeshua as Messiah." On a Sunday night in September, congregants followed the Hebrew liturgy, taking time for informal and spontaneous prayer requests. Members prayed for government leaders as well as both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. In the simple sanctuary, devoid of statues and icons, Apolinary exhorted congregants to pray for wisdom. "There are so many things that will distract us; we want to ask wisdom from Him to choose the most important things. Let us open our hearts to request this most important gift." Apolinary, who does not wear a clerical collar out of sensitivity to the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where the church is located, admitted in an interview: "There are tensions here [between] ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis, Arabs. You feel the tension. So certainly you need to keep the peace - the internal peace of people. Everything's difficult, but everything is also possible!" 'Just' a ladder As dozens of black-garbed priests from every conceivable church contrive to manage a tenuous bureaucracy, a lone 150-year-old wooden ladder outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre typifies the challenge. The ladder, leaning against a window above the church's entrance, is attested to in documents dating back to 1852, when the Status Quo - the arrangement by which individual church as well as common areas are defined - determined window ledges were common ground. As such, no denomination (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, etc.) can enact any change without all churches agreeing. An 1862 painting of the church proves the ladder's position is unchanged. Father Athanasius represents Roman Catholic interests in the dispute, as the Vatican has charged Franciscans with responsibility for the holy places. "Sometimes I think I'd like to be involved in weightier issues of peace and justice, but making sure the Sepulchre is available to all pilgrims is a satisfying ministry," says Athanasius. Occasionally disputes over which church possesses which area have become impassioned, even violent, necessitating police action. The Franciscan suggests these heated but rare events have given the Status Quo a bad reputation. While walking around the Old City and fielding questions on his cell phone regarding Status Quo minutiae, he insists: "You wouldn't believe the number of issues people work out on a daily basis." Athanasius estimates that about 95 percent of potential conflicts are dealt with through existing arrangements. "It proves that people can work things out, given enough time," the priest encourages. "We have a thorough and very detailed set of understandings about the rights in every area of the church, and most of the time that is enough." - D.S.

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