St. Francis, the Sultan and the Custody of the Holy Land
The biographer Thomas of Celano and the other contemporary sources recall how Francis, wishing to bring Christ to the Infidels, in 1219 embarked at the port of Ancona for Egypt where he managed to have a meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, nephew of Saladin, receiving a warm welcome and protection for himself and his Friars. A scene illustrated by painters and immortalised by Dante Alighieri in his XI Canto of Paradise. Thus commenced a new chapter in Christian relations with the Holy Land.
It is this prophetic gesture of love and courtesy toward the enemy that binds the presence of the Friars Minor in the Holy Land. After the end of the Latin Kingdom in 1291, the Friars Minor were authorised to visit the Holy Places and progressively to remain at the service of the western pilgrims. In 1333, with the economic and diplomatic collaboration of the Sovereigns of Naples, Robert of Anjou and Sancia of Majorca, they managed to gain possession of the Cenacle and to construct themselves a convent which became the centre of the Custody of the Holy Land officialized by Pope Clement VI with the bull letter Gratias Agimus dated 21 November 1342.
The Muslim authority conceded to the Friars Minor to hold services in the Holy Sepulchre, in Golgotha chapel and in the tomb, in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem and in the Tomb of Our Lady at Gethsemane.
For centuries, until midway through the XIX century, the Friars Minor were the only western catholic religious presence in Palestine. The primary scope of their presence, service to the Holy Places and assistance to the pilgrims, was integrated, with the passage of time, with the opening of parish churches, schools and works of social assistance to the local Christians.
At the start of the twentieth century the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum was founded, a biblical and archaeological specialisation school.