In 1217, St. Francis of Assisi sent friars to the Holy Land, ministering in areas controlled by the Crusaders. They built churches in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, usually on the remains of earlier Christian shrines. As the Crusaders lost territory, the friar presence decreased until Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in modern-day Israel, was surrendered in 1291.
In early 1220, Francis of Assisi had visited Sultan Malik al-Kamil near Damietta, Egypt. We are not sure whether Francis visited the Holy Land itself, but we know that he received a safe-conduct letter from the sultan. In Francis’ Rule of 1223, he described the friars’ possible direct ministry to Saracens (an alternative term for Muslims). In his Rule of 1221, which was never submitted for papal approval, Francis had outlined two ways of evangelizing non-Christians: direct preaching or living humbly and quietly, trusting that their good example would draw people to Jesus.
When they lived under Muslim governments, the friars were sometimes persecuted and at other times tolerated. Indirect preaching by their lives was more acceptable than direct preaching. Most shrines where the friars serve have websites accessible through the “Sanctuaries” link at custodia.org. May all of us witness to Jesus as he directs us!