Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) works with many groups in the Middle East. The men and women of the Franciscan family are among our partners. Franciscans have been in the Middle East since the time of St. Francis in the 13th century. The Custody of the Holy Land has been the organization through which Franciscans have worked as custodians of the holy places for eight centuries. However, Franciscan men and women in the Middle East are engaged in far more than maintaining shrines. They run parishes, schools, hospitals, etc., in almost every country in the region.
Recently the Syrian city of Aleppo has been in the news. Eastern Aleppo has been the target of almost constant bombardment, destroying homes, hospitals and people’s lives. The photograph of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting bloodied and in shock in an ambulance has burned itself into the conscience of the world. Franciscan men and women are working there and Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, a Franciscan, is the Latin Rite vicar apostolic of the city.
The Rev. Michael Perry, O.F.M., the minister general of the (Franciscan) Order of Friars Minor, has recently issued a “Message Concerning Syria.” Drawing on statements of Pope Francis and the deep peace tradition of Franciscans, Father Michael calls all parties to “silence your weapons; put an end to hatred and every kind of violence, so that all may find and walk the path of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.”
Father Michael also asks that Aleppo be designated a safe zone. Realizing the difficulties involved in such a move, he calls the operatives to use “lessons and solutions acquired in previous conflicts.” Importantly Father Michael does not call for denominational safe zones but zones which would “allow the whole population … to receive essential humanitarian aid without discrimination, to find safety and security, and to recover some trust and hope in a speedy solution, which would be motivated by peace alone.” One can only hope that the “Message Concerning Syria” is widely read and taken to heart by world leaders.