The collapse of the Middle East peace process has driven away the visitors hoped for after the Pope's visit. Nicholas Jubber and Michael Hirst talk to the priest charged with the protection of pilgrims, His Paternity Giovanni Battistelli, Custos of the Holy Land WHEN he
Visited the Holy Land earlier this Jubilee year, the Pope hoped to set a precedent for an influx of pilgrims to the Holy Places where Christ lived, taught and died. Instead, the streets of Jerusalem are bare; journalists and diplomats outnumber the straggling tourists.
The recent violence, its fatality count well over a hundred, is the most sustained period of fighting the region has seen since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993; it has claimed more lives per day than the original intifada.
The prospects of a peace settlement, which seemed so close only this summer when Arafat, Barak and Clinton met at Camp David, are now received by the local population with a shrug of the shoulders or a sceptical laugh.
The effect that this situation is having on the local economy is devastating. Hotel managers are in despair: "There are cancellations across the board", declared the manager of Casa Nova. the most popular rest-place for Italian pilgrims in Jerusalem. "I am having to offer reductions and special deals, and still no one will come." The Old City, traditionally a denizen of tourists, who stroll on the same stones as Christ, visiting churches and chapels, talking to charismatic guides and enterprising vendors, taking photos as a testament to their time here, is now an empty network of dark alleyways, markets (most of whose shops are closed) and unvisited information centers There is little optimism amongst the local Palestinians -The situation is not getting better", said a local teacher, dismissing the recent Sharm-al-Sheikh agreement. "In fact, it may get a lot
worse." With helicopters still hovering over the Old City, each corner of which is guarded by a squad of soldiers, tension is yet to abate. Clashes are still a regular occurrence, invariably leading to injuries as stones, police batons and finally gunfire are thrust into the foreground. In such a situation, St Saviour's monastery, the residence of His Paternity Giovanni Battistelli, the Custos of the Holy Land, is like a sanctuary, a spiritual enclave far removed from the troubles outside.
The exodus of pilgrims is important to the Custos, since a great part of his job is to facilitate access to the holy sites for visiting pilgrims. When St Francis of Assisi visited the region in 1219, during the Crusades, access was extremely limited. However, St Francis so impressed Sultan Melek El-Kernel with his quiet dignity. and his successors similarly gained favour with later Muslim leaders, that the Franciscan Order was granted a special allowance to establish monasteries at Mount Zion and Bethlehem, and to guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A document of 1309 signed by Baybars 11 allowed the Brethren of the Cord (as they were known) such rights. but refused entry to all other -Frankish" fie Western) clergy. Nearly 700 years later, there are clergy of every conceivable rite in the Holy Land, but
the Franciscans have maintained a stable presence. Taking his mandate from St Francis, the current Custos is keen that peace be restored and pilgrims enabled to visit the sites as the saint intended. His "special mission", he says, is "the protection of pilgrims, which was given to us by the Holy Scc and was reinforced by the Pope's visit."
The corridors of St Saviour's are lined with painted tributes to Evangelists and Franciscans, solemnised with haloes, their historical distance strengthening the sense of detachment from the troubles outside. On our way to meet the Custos, we passed the cell where St Ignatius of Loyola was incarcerated when he arrived in the Holy Land without permission from the Holy See. Now, with Foreign Office advice lines discouraging pilgrims and holidaymakers from coming here, the prison looks even more redundant than its decades of disuse suggest. A small but ornate assembly room looked out to the streets below, where several Israeli soldiers stood alert, hands gripped firmly round M16s. Gilded chairs were set around a chintz table; Byzantine-style icons peered front the walls, as the Custos shuffled into the room.
KINDLY looking man in his late
sixties, he embodies the simplicity of the Franciscan Order, his brown habit and knots of remembrance in stark contrast to the brightness of the room. He hasn't the powerful presence and booming rhetoric of the Latin Patriarch. but operates in a till more understated and humbh. stay This corresponds with the teachings cif St Francis, who famously stripped down to his hair-shirt in front of the Bishop of Assisi, before renouncing all worldly posses. sions. However, the Custos appearance of simplicity conceals an impressive range of academic experience: he has degrees in Philosophy and Theology, and a licentiate in Oriental Sciences; and he was Superior of the Collegia Internazionale di Terra Santa in Rome for 13 years.
When he talks, it is with a combination of Italian passion and the intellect that these experiences suggest. However. in the current situation, passion is hard to subdue. Looking back to the source of the clashes, he says, "The way (Ariel) Sharon behaved has been a provocation. What's happened now has taken us back many years." Whilst he doesn't condone violence, he identifies with the Palestinians. and sees Arab and Christian aspirations as "the same": "There's so much hate now", he sighs; "they're looking for blood." He would have liked to see an "international inquest" into the situation, "nut headed by America", since "the Arabs think that America is too interested in Israel." Such views may seem to be taking political sides, but they correspond with the views of the Latin Patriarchate and the wider Christian community in the region. The Custos is concerned that these local Christians suffer discrimination and injustice at the hands of the Israeli Government: "The biggest problem that the families have", he explained, "is for security and the future of their children. The development that has taken place in Israel has not favoured the economic development of the Arabs'
HE CITES the debacle over the Basilica of the Annun ciation in Nazareth as an example in which "the Government puts problems deliberately in the way". Last November, permission was granted for the cornerstone of a mosque to be laid in the shadow of the Basilica. Since then. there have been clashes between Muslims and Christians, traditionally friendly in the face of the perceived enemy of Israel.
This issue touches the heart of the Custos work, the guardianship of the holy places. -Arafat, Egypt, all Arabs were against this," he stormed. "Even the Mufti 'the leading Muslim sheikh] has said that prayers that are said there are not valid." He describes the supporters of the mosque as "a rebel group not condoned by Arafat". Such people. he believes, will present further problems for Christians when, and if, a Palestinian state is declared: "The Palestinian statutes are based on the fundamental laws 01' Islam," he says. "This is very concerning for Christians in the Holy Land." The eventual departure of Arafat, who, with a Christian wife and close relations with the Christian authorities, is supportive of their cause. will be "very difficult". Only time will resolve that issue, but on the subject of the Basilica of the Annunciation, he is keen to find a resolution as swiftly as possible. 1-le has sent a letter to the Israeli Minister for Internal Security. Shlomo Ben-Ami, "warning of the danger this (mosque) will make". And if there is no positive reply, he will arrange the closure of all sanctuaries in Galilee. The same tactic was used last November. when the debacle first arose, and the Custos believes that "this son of pressure should bear fruit".
The Custos firmly believes that he must take a stand when politics infringes on religious matters, as is so often the case in the Holy Land. However, he is keen to abide by the teachings of St Francis, who impressed the Sultan with his apolitical spiritualism, so different from the territorialism and machinations of the C'rusaders. The Franciscans have worked since then on preserving the Holy Places, and have tended to stay out of local issues; but the increasing priority which the Church is giving to dwindling Christian numbers, with its fear that the Holy Land will become a "museum for the memory of visitors", has induced the Franciscans to work closely with, and for, the local population. Now they have 16 schools and colleges, which cater for 10,(XX) students (6.000 of whom are non-Christian), two orphanages, two resthomes and three clinics; they also run summer camps and women's workplaces and have recently opened a centre for children with polio. A substantial amount of their time and funds is given over to providing housing units (there are currently 357 in Jerusalem alone, for which the Custody usually covers the cost of repairs). There is even a Franciscan printing press, which caters both for the local people, by providing jobs as well as such items as greetings cards; and for the pilgrims, with maps, postcards and guidebooks. And, as if they aren't content with the 74 holy places that they already administer (either independently, or alongside other denominations), they are involved in excavation and archaeological work in such places as the Judean desert and Jordan.
T„.: Pom's pilgrimage made the early part of this year particularly busy, as the Custos was heavily involved with the administration and technicalities of the visit. Waving such details aside, he is keen to emphasize the strong relations that were forged: "The Pope was able to solidify his relationships with the Jews and the Muslims", he says. "So much good came out of this visit." He is also pleased with the development of relations between the Christian denominations, which have often been more fraught than those with different faiths. He believes
such relations are now integral: "All Christians". he suggests. "should congregate together at this time and pray for peace. We must remain in contact with the other denominations here."
III,. CUSTOS cuts a spiritual figure in keeping with the Franciscan ideal. He says himself that
"in a holy place, the friar must give goodness to all around him". In light of the recent developments, "we must behave in the best way to help bring peace". He is organizing
tion for such help. but does not confine himself to the spiritual sphere, believing in the importance of practical caritas, enacted through the Custody's social works, as well as the letters and closures that are intended to draw the government's attention to the Church's position. He frequently relates his own outlook to that of St. Francis, perceiving his function in a historical context by which he is attempting to model himself on St. Francis as well as Ch fist himself.
As the helicopters contin emerged from the mosques clutching stones, the Custos returned to his model: "When St Francis came here he left the crusaders to their devices and went personally to the Sultan to bring peace." The Custos peered outside where Israeli soldiers stalked the streets and Palestinian youths hovered in doorways, each side eyeing the other with anger and resentment.
"We ask now", he concluded, "that St Francis might personally intercede with God for us — and for peace."