Rome, 5th April 2002
We, Franciscan Friars, cannot leave the Holy Places, even if we have to take risks, in order to avoid a tragic massacre in Bethlehem, in the Church of the Nativity.
Eight centuries ago, Francis of Assisi, went unarmed to meet the Sultan of Egypt Malek-El-Kamel (1220), and he risked his life between two armies in order to construct peace.
Today 40 Friars Minor and 4 Franciscan Sisters, without any free choice of their own, are finding themselves in the same situation: they are living in their own house with the doors already broken in. They are surrounded by two armed groups, 200 Palestinians within the friary and many Israeli tanks outside. We are remaining in our position between two camps, trying the create dialogue with everybody, in order to avoid a tragic end. This is happening in Bethlehem, in the same spot where Jesus "our Peace" was born, within the Basilica of the Nativity, a monument of faith and devotion for so many Christians since the very early centuries of Christianity.
"DO NOT ABANDON US DEFINITELY". This was the cry of the Friars of Bethlehem to the Italian journalists who left after finding shelter in the Friary.
"HELP US!" This is the cry of our Brothers who are locked inside their own house, like "voluntary hostages", in the grips of a war machine.
During eight centuries the Friars have remained in these places as messengers of love of the dead and risen Christ, as witnesses to reconciliation. They have always defended jealously the Holy Places, which are signs and symbols of faith and devotion, and which are the common heritage of humanity.
"WE SHALL NOT ABANDON YOU". These are the words I have told this morning to the Superior of our Friars in Bethlehem. We shall feel ourselves very close to them. In fact, peace is a commitment of all; it is a serious and persevering commitment; it is a commitment which calls for risk, so that everyone should assume one's proper duty with responsibility.
Our Brothers are psychologically and physically tired; they have been left without food because in these last days they have shared all they had with the 200 "occupants". In spite of all this, they cannot abandon this Holy Place: it would mean a massacre which would be added to the long spiral of violence which has lasted for many months, and which would leave once more deep wounds which will never be erased.
To all the parts in the conflict, as Franciscans, we would like to shout: WHO HAS SUFFERED in a recent or remote past CANNOT DEEM IT TO BE HIS RIGHT TO CREATE SUFFERING FOR OTHERS. In this way there will never be a solution to pain: vendetta calls again for vendetta, violence leads to more violence, death generates death. It would be an infernal cycle where our earth would become a land of blood and death. It is only in FORGIVENESS that we can build lasting relationships, communion and peace.
We call to everyone: LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS! Return to the best sentiments of the heart which cannot die in any human person. Listen to the "pacific voice of the heart" (and not to the war-torn cry), in order to find, through dialogue, the reasons for agreement and rapprochement.
All the Friars of the world, who have always embraced, helped and defended all parties, are ready once again to be mediators, as they are already doing. We have nothing to lose, in fact, and we have no interests to defend, if not the interest of peace which is a right of everybody.
In a not-too-distant past, in our churches and in our houses we have had refugees, persons "condemned" to death or extermination. We have always welcomed them. We have even gone so far as to make them wear the Franciscan habit to be saved. Today also we are ready to give a "Franciscan habit" of peace to all, so that everybody can become an "instrument of peace". This is our mission, even to the extreme cost of our own life!
In communion with so many children, women and innocent persons who call for mercy, in front of God and in front of us all, we Franciscans ask you once again: LAY DOWN YOUR ARMS! If violence and death continue, we all will be responsible, even though at different levels. There are brothers and sisters who are suffering, and we cannot remain passive, we cannot stop shouting our message:
- To the Heads of State: return to reason more than to force; otherwise tomorrow we will all be losers.
- To all persons of good will: collaborate with our Brothers and Sisters who are in the front line in Bethlehem: speak out, shout, play your part to build peace. This is urgent! Too many persons have already died or are suffering in hospitals. They are our brothers and sisters!
- To the Journalists: "DO NOT LEAVE US ALONE". I repeat this message with the Friars of Bethlehem to your Journalists. You have a great role, a great responsibility: you could become true builders of peace.
- To every man and woman of faith: I ask to plead the Giver of peace, God of heaven and earth, so that He will give us, in spite of our "hard heartedness", this gift which is so indispensable for life, as much as the daily bread we eat.
In communion with the Pope (who has not stopped to make pressing appeals to all), with all the Friars of the Holy Land and with all Christians in the world, let us celebrate Sunday 7th April 2002, as a day of intense prayer, so that the Lord will give days of peace to the two peoples in order that they may live together in peace in the same land.
I invite all the Friars Minor of the world, the Franciscan Contemplatives and all the lay Franciscan persons, to add a moment of personal prayer, every day, for peace.
Thanks to everybody. May the Lord give Peace to that Land which is Holy and bloodstained.
May the Lord give Peace to our world.
Rome, the General Curia of the Order of Friars Minoir, 5th April 2002
Br. Giacomo Bini, ofm