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John Feister continues his reports from the Middle East, today visiting the Old City of Jerusalem.

Special Features
Day 4: Jerusalem,
the Old City

The Franciscans have had a unique role in the Holy Land since the time of the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century. It was then that St. Francis embarked to Damietta, Egypt, at the mouth of the Nile River, to preach peace to the camps preparing for slaughter. After being ignored by the Europeans, who were gathering forces for an attack, he crossed the battle lines and was taken to see Sultan (Saladin) Malik al Kamil. The Sultan and St. Francis, both men of strong religious faith, spent some time (a day? a few days? a week? no one today knows) in dialogue. Both men gained respect for the deepest meaning of the others’ traditions.

The Crusade was a poor idea; the Europeans suffered a tremendous loss. Eventually Saladin granted to the Christians access to the sites in the Holy Land, and placed those sites in the care of the man of peace. Franciscans have cared for them ever since. There is a special organization of friars, a custos, or Custody, of the Holy Land. In includes care for sites sacred to Christians throughout the Holy Land.

(photo by John Feister)
Our fourth day of immersion into the world of the Middle East started with a visit to the Franciscans’ school in Jerusalem—Terra Sancta. The school, grades 1-12, is a beacon of peace in Old Jerusalem the city, but times are bleak in 2010. The Israeli government, to a high degree, essentially has citizens locked in to the Old City.

We visited with the school counselor and one of his star students who grew up to become a Franciscan and then principal of the school. These are Arab Christians caught in a struggle between Islam and Judaism. They explained to us that the main idea of the government is to evacuate Arab citizens from Jerusalem and populate it solely with Jewish people. As people in the city—closed in since 1948—give in to despair, those who can, leave for freedom in Europe or the Western Hemisphere (many in South America). Their property is occupied by the State, winning real estate in a war of attrition. Feelings run deep among these Arab Catholics; opinions are stated strongly. These people seek primarily a separate state for Palestine, an end to military occupation tactics, an openness of society that would allow them to travel freely, and, finally, to live in respect and human dignity.

“If you want to be friends with me, treat me as an equal,” the counselor told us. These people are hurting.

Terra Sancta School offers tuition at a vastly reduced rate. The student body is a mixture of Christians and Arabs, receiving a high-quality, respectful education. But there is no expansion of the school—permits are impossible to get. For the local residents, real estate is very expensive, so many sell out and move on. But, as Yousef, the headmaster, says, “There is more concern for the stones than for the people. We are between a rock and an anvil.”

Friar Simon, whose family is from Old Jerusalem, does not seem enthusiastic about anything changing soon. Some of those Arabs who are persisting in the Old City, whose families have lived there for generations, are served by the Franciscans.

Our visit was one of five events that we experienced on this fourth day. There will be time to write more later, from our visits with Church and community leaders. We’re seeing one thing with certainty: There are many dimensions to the suffering of today’s Palestinians.
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Charles de Foucauld: Born into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, Charles was orphaned at the age of six, raised by his devout grandfather, rejected the Catholic faith as a teenager and joined the French army. Inheriting a great deal of money from his grandfather, Charles went to Algeria with his regiment, but not without his mistress, Mimi. <br /><br />When he declined to give her up, he was dismissed from the army. Still in Algeria when he left Mimi, Charles reenlisted in the army. Refused permission to make a scientific exploration of nearby Morocco, he resigned from the service. With the help of a Jewish rabbi, Charles disguised himself as a Jew and in 1883 began a one-year exploration that he recorded in a book that was well received. <br /><br />Inspired by the Jews and Muslims whom he met, Charles resumed the practice of his Catholic faith when he returned to France in 1886. He joined a Trappist monastery in Ardeche, France, and later transferred to one in Akbes, Syria. Leaving the monastery in 1897, Charles worked as gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. In 1901 he returned to France and was ordained a priest. <br /><br />Later that year Charles journeyed to Beni-Abbes, Morocco, intending to found a monastic religious community in North Africa that offered hospitality to Christians, Muslims, Jews, or people with no religion. He lived a peaceful, hidden life but attracted no companions. <br /><br />A former army comrade invited him to live among the Tuareg people in Algeria. Charles learned their language enough to write a Tuareg-French and French-Tuareg dictionary, and to translate the Gospels into Tuareg. In 1905 he came to Tamanrasset, where he lived the rest of his life. A two-volume collection of Charles' Tuareg poetry was published after his death. <br /><br />In early 1909 he visited France and established an association of laypeople who pledged to live by the Gospels. His return to Tamanrasset was welcomed by the Tuareg. In 1915 Charles wrote to Louis Massignon: “The love of God, the love for one’s neighbor…All religion is found there…How to get to that point? Not in a day since it is perfection itself: it is the goal we must always aim for, which we must unceasingly try to reach and that we will only attain in heaven.”   <br /><br />The outbreak of World War I led to attacks on the French in Algeria. Seized in a raid by another tribe, Charles and two French soldiers coming to visit him were shot to death on December 1, 1916. <br />Five religious congregations, associations, and spiritual institutes (Little Brothers of Jesus, Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Little Sisters of Jesus, Little Brothers of the Gospel and Little Sisters of the Gospel) draw inspiration from the peaceful, largely hidden, yet hospitable life that characterized Charles. He was beatified on November 13, 2005. American Catholic Blog You know, O my God, I have never desired anything but to love you, and I am ambitious for no other glory.


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