The Custody of the Holy Land is usually traced back to the year 1217, when the first General Chapter of the Friars Minor was celebrated at St. Mary of the Angels, near Assisi. In an act of inspiration, Francis decided to send his Friars to all nations.
The world was, so to speak, divided into Franciscan "provinces," and the friars from Assisi went out to the four corners of the world. On that occasion, the Holy Land was not forgotten. The Holy Land appears among the eleven Mother Provinces of the Order. In the documents, it is designated by various names: Syria, Romania, or Ultramarina. It included the Empire of Constantinople, Greece and the Greek Isles, Asia Minor, Antioch, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Egypt, and the rest of the Orient. The Province of the Holy Land, because of the vastness of the territory and the presence of the holy places, was always given special consideration.
From the very beginning, it was considered to be the most important "province" of the Order. Perhaps this is why it was entrusted to the care of Brother Elias, a prominent figure in the burgeoning fraternity due to his organizational talent and his culture and experience. It would be interesting to know the initiatives taken by Brother Elias to organize and consolidate this part of the Order, characterized by particular environmental problems and by the vastness of the territory. His zeal, and the qualities that distinguished him as a leader must have driven him during the years of his mandate to lay the foundations of the Franciscan apostolate in all regions situated in the southeastern basin of the Mediterranean.
In 1219, St. Francis himself wanted to visit at least a part of the Province of the Holy Land. Well-known documents speak of the "Poor man of Assisi" among the Crusaders, below the walls of Damietta. His encounter with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamel, nephew of Saladin the Great, is also well documented.
The same documents add that after leaving Damietta, Francis went to Syria. In any case, the visit of St. Francis to the holy places certainly took place between 1219 and 1220. In this regard, Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, wrote: "We saw the arrival of the friar Francis, founder of the Order of Friars Minor. He was a simple and unlettered man, but most lovable and dear to God and to men. He arrived when the army of the Crusaders was encamped below Damietta; he was immediately respected by all." During his brief voyage, Saint Francis showed by his own demeanour how future Franciscan missionaries should conduct themselves in those regions, and the specific field of their activity. According to the technique of the Poverello, evangelization must be done in a friendly way and with extreme humility, exactly as he had done with regard to the Sultan. Also, the holy places must be loved and venerated for their relationship with the most salient moments of the life of Christ.
Historians have argued that after the 13th century, and especially after the failure of the Crusades, access to the holy places was guaranteed using a new strategy, and that the missionary apostolate, with the unarmed presence of the Franciscans, replaced military expeditions. When Pope Gregory IX, then residing in Perugia, sent a Bull dated February 1, 1230, urging the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, the legates of the Holy See, all the archbishops and bishops, abbots, priors, superiors, deacons and archdeacons and all the other prelates of the Church who received the Bull to welcome and support in any way possible the Order of Friars Minor, he must have intuited somehow that the Crusades had fallen short of their goal and that it would be better and above all more evangelical to try to coexist and dialogue with the Muslims instead of fighting them.
This would also further the cause of the holy places. Even if the 1230 Bull of Gregory IX cannot be considered an official document for the juridical recognition of the installation of the sons of Saint Francis in the Holy Land, it was nonetheless the document that paved the way for and enabled them to come to the country and settle there.
Another certain date in the history of the Province of the Holy Land is 1263. That year, under the generalship of St. Bonaventure, the General Chapter was convened in Pisa. On that occasion, naturally, the Province of the Holy Land was also discussed. Its boundaries were set to include the Island of Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, dividing it into Custodies, including that of the Holy Land, which included the convents of Saint Jean d'Acre, Antioch, Sidon, Tripoli, Jerusalem and Jaffa.
The reconquest of Acre by the Muslims on May 18, 1291, marked the end of the Latin kingdom in the Holy Land. The Christians were put to severe hardship. The Franciscans were expelled from the Holy Land and forced to take refuge in Cyprus where, at the time, the Provincial headquarters was located.
From the nearby island of Cyprus, the Franciscans never lost interest in the Holy Land. Like exiles far from their country, their constant desire was to find the means to live near the holy places. Nothing was overlooked in the pursuit of this goal. Historical documents of the time testified to private devotional visits and visits authorized by the Holy See in order to restore the Catholic presence in the holy places. A first benevolent gesture on behalf of the Franciscans was made by Sultan Baibars II (1309-10), who gave them the "Church of Bethlehem", but the Sultan died soon afterward, and the friars were unable to take possession of it.
In 1322, James II of Aragon obtained an agreement from the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamel Naser, whereby the custody of the Holy Sepulcher would be entrusted to Aragonese Dominicans. This promise remained only in writing. Four years later, in 1327, James II again appealed to the sovereign grace, this time not for the Dominicans but for the Friars Minor.
The Bull of Pope John XXII, released on August 9, 1328, which granted the Provincial Minister living in Cyprus permission to send two friars to visit the holy places each year, must be interpreted in this vein. Even here, everyday practice preceded the organizational plan from the top. In fact, there were already Franciscans serving at the Holy Sepulcher between 1322 and 1327. In 1333, the Sultan of Egypt granted the Cenacle to Friar Roger Guérin of Aquitaine. He hastened to build a convent in the immediate vicinity, with funds made available by the Sovereigns of Naples, Roberto d'Angiò and by his wife, Sancha, daughter of James I, king of Majorca. These two sovereigns are rightly considered "instruments of Providence" for the cause of the holy places: they played key roles for their recovery; both by their diplomatic influence and through the financial help they gave. It was thanks to them and their intercession that the local Muslim authorities recognized the official right of the Franciscans to officiate in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher.
Juridical recognition on the part of the Holy See, which was also extended to the other shrines, came a few years later, specifically on November 21, 1342, with the Bulls Gratias agimus and Nuper carissimae. This is considered the definitive conclusion of the involvement of the Kings of Naples in the long negotiations for the cause of the holy places. In addition to official recognition, the Bull contained provisions to ensure the continuity of the institution.
With special insight, the international scope of the new ecclesiastical and religious body was assured, prescribing that the friars could come from any of the provinces of the order. For the protection of discipline, it required that all friars, once they entered into service in the Holy Land, be under the obedience of the Father Guardian of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the representative of the Provincial Minister residing in Cyprus.
In 1347, the Franciscans settled permanently in Bethlehem near the Basilica of the Nativity of our Lord. The first statutes of the Holy Land, which date back to 1377, provided for no more than twenty religious at the service of the holy places: the Holy Cenacle, the Holy Sepulcher, and Bethlehem. Their main activity consisted of ensuring the liturgical life in the shrines mentioned, and in providing religious assistance for European pilgrims. A document from 1390, specifies that the Province of the Holy Land, with its headquarters in Cyprus, also had a Custody in Syria, including four convents: Mount Zion, the Holy Sepulcher, Bethlehem, and Beirut.
Note that the document in question does nothing other than confirm what was already a pre-existing situation, both in the number of convents and of the name of the religious body called the Custody of Syria, perhaps to avoid confusion with the name of the Province of the Holy Land, to which it belonged.
In this first official period of its history, the Custody received the "seal of martyrdom" with the sacrifice of a number of its friars. Franciscan blood first bathed the ground of Jerusalem in 1244, during the siege of the Khwarezmians, who put many Christians to the sword and brutally slaughtered the Friars Minor. Others, commemorated by Alexander IV, underwent martyrdom in 1257.
Nine years later, in Safed in 1266, more than two thousand Christian combatants died after the occupation of the city by Sultan Bibars. The heroic friars who would not renounce their faith also died with them. In 1268, Jaffa and Antioch also had their Franciscan victims. Again in Syria, in 1269, eight friars fell beneath the Saracen sword. The story is told how two brilliant lights shone over the body of one of them, Friar Corrado de Hallis, floating on the waves of the sea for almost three days. In Damascus and Tripoli, in 1277, new Christian blood was spilled by the soldiers of Sultan Kelaun. Acre, the last bastion of the Latin Kingdom, was besieged by Sultan Melek el Ascaraf. More than thirty thousand Christians and many friars fell at the hands of the Saracens.