The Franciscan presence in the Middle East dates back to 1217 when Friar Elias of Assisi was sent by Saint Francis with a small group of friars to the “overseas territory” in order to found friaries, especially in the land sanctified by the presence of Jesus and Mary. Friar Elias was nominated “Ultramarinae [Overseas] Provincial Minister,” a territory that at the time extended from Egypt to Greece and was almost entirely dominated by Islam.
In 1423, in those far-off regions where various friaries had been founded (especially in the Holy Land) the Overseas Province was divided into two provinces: that of the Holy Land or Syria and that of Romania or Greece. Constantinople, a political center active in the Greek Empire, became the Franciscan center of those regions.
In 1434, Pope Eugene IV entrusted the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Syria to the Friars Minor Observant, leaving to the Conventuals the friaries on the Island of Cyprus and in Greece. The Franciscan Conventual order continued to nominate the Minister Provincial of the Holy Land until 1517, when the Island of Cyprus was occupied by Saracens, destroying the Franciscan and Christian presence there.
In 1469, the Vicariate of Romania and Greece changed names to be called “Province of the Orient.” Its jurisdiction included the friaries in Turkey and Greece. And, as of 1959, the words “et Terrae Sanctae” (the Holy Land) were added to the existing name, in hopes that one day it would be possible to return to the land of Jesus.
Beginning in 1637 many missionaries from Constantinople were sent to Romania, especially in Moldavia, where they founded friaries and parish centers. Today, after having been freed from the yoke of communism, the Romanian Province of Saint Joseph, founded in 1895, has become a fertile source of vocations. Many of these friars have been sent out to various parts of the Order.
In the last century, the Order extended its presence to Damascus, Syria where in 1911 a school and a church were opened to serve the Italian population. In the 1960’s, this presence in Damascus was abandoned, and, as of 1966, the Order is present in Lebanon.
Currently, the Custody of the Orient and the Holy Land, includes the following friaries/communities in Turkey: Istanbul, Iskenderun, Büyükdere, and in Lebanon: Sin-el-Fil e Zahlé.
The Custody is made up of 25 friars who come from various countries around the world: Romania, Poland, Lebanon, Italy, Slovenia, Belgium, Nigeria, USA as well as 8 postulants: one Romanian, four Lebanese and three Nigerians.