Tommaso Saltini, Carla Benelli and Osama Hamdan in Bethany (Cisgiordania)

A land to be safeguarded

The parish priest from Gaza, the Muslim architect who repairs churches, the elderly atheist who converts. Tommaso Saltini, director of Pro Terra Sancta, describes a place that "still has one strength: to propose God to the world."
Maria Acqua Simi

Tommaso Saltini, 51 years old, has been the Director General of the Pro Terra Sancta Association since 2006. It is an NGO linked to the Custody of the Holy Land and to the numerous churches and Christian communities in those places (it operates in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece), working to promote development, cultural and educational projects that help dialogue in a context that everyone describes as impossible. On his desk are piled up photos and brochures of Gethsemane, the sites of the crucifixion, and then Bethany, Bethlehem, Jericho. All the way to Nazareth, where the story of salvation began and origin of our hope even in these dark hours. There Mary received the Angel's announcement and there the Word became flesh.

We interviewed him in these days, while the war once again brought bloodshed to Israel and Palestine, not for an analysis of the situation but so that he can help us understand more. What does it mean to be Christian, Israeli, Arab, Muslim in those lands? And what does it mean to cooperate so that all may, one day, feel at home? His answers are stories, fragments of life, a journey that has lasted eighteen years. Indeed, eight hundred.

“These days there is great dismay,” Saltini recounts. “For years we have been engaged in the service of a population that has been tried by decades of conflict, and the violence that has re-exploded frightens us, pains us, calls us into question. It also makes us feel powerless, but I will never stop saying that it is necessary to foster opportunities to meet and work to icome up with new and creative solutions that will bring development and peace for all. We also need lasting political proposals. It is not easy, but it is not impossible because I have seen how many unthinkable relationships have come into being and generated good. When I look back the first thing I feel is gratitude: the Lord did not allow me to be alone. Without human companionship I would never have been able to participate in my own small way in the great mission that the Church entrusted to the Franciscan friars eight centuries ago, that of safeguarding the holy places and supporting the Christian community in the Holy Land."

Saltini is Milanese and a member of the Memores Domini. Following a degree in economics from the Catholic University in Milan (where he still teaches today), and after a few years working in the world of finance and three spent at the United Nations in Vienna, he arrived in Jerusalem. The new very young Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, had decided to entrust him with the direction of an NGO, secular but linked to the Custody, which already existed on paper but had not yet managed to take off. "The trust Pizzaballa gave me, who already held the movement in high esteem, was an immediate incentive. Before becoming Custodian, in fact, he had been a priest in the first Catholic parish in Israel with the pastoral work in Hebrew (he speaks it very well, he learnt it by living with some Jewish families in the kibbutz) and as parish priest he had begun to receive many pilgrims. Among them, several CL groups. He was very impressed by the profound questions they asked him and this led him over time to have a deep sympathy for Communion and Liberation.”

In the Holy Land, Tommaso slowly began to work with everyone and to delve into the history and culture of all the communities present. What he thought he knew was swept away immediately. Prejudices give way to encounters. Even the most disparate ones. The first was with Carla Benelli, still a pillar of Pro Terra Sancta. An art historian, secular, left-wing, she had chosen to move to Jerusalem ten years earlier because she had become passionate about the work of preserving cultural heritage initiated by Fr. Michele Piccirillo, an eclectic archaeologist and scholar who first sensed the need for a secular association to support the Custody. She was struck by how he valued the local community: he trained young people, involved Palestinians in even the most demanding tasks in the fields of restoration and architecture, and dialogued with everyone. And that was the way forward: one of the first major projects Pro Terra Sancta carried out was in the Palestinian town of Sabastiya, in Samaria, where John the Baptist is said to be buried.

"That project, involving 'stones and people', is still going strong today. It is not trivial to point this out: it is the fruit of the first lesson Pizzaballa gave us, when he told us not to start something if we were not able to carry it out over time. The people who live in the Holy Land, in fact, are always hurt by the fact that a lot of aid arrives but that it is temporary, with an expiry date, and that few really stay with them," the Director of the association emphasises. "What is not understood, even today, is that welfare kills the dignity of the person. It is not money given for free or more or less well thought-out speeches around the theme of peace that build.” What remains, Tommaso assures us, are the relationships. That is what resists even now, in the midst of destruction.

Small seeds. Like the group of mosaic restorers, of different origins, who began working together to restore Christian shrines and who still remain united after so many years. Like the only Christian parish priest in Gaza, Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, who has gone against the tide in recent days to be able to return to the Strip and not leave his people alone. Or like Osama Hamdan, a Palestinian architect who could have given in to hatred, for the injustices he suffered, and instead chose to love. “Osama has been with us since the beginning,” Saltini explains. "For me it was wonderful to see him work over the years: a Muslim, he literally gave his life for the restoration of Christian churches, arousing such amazement and admiration that his presence encouraged dialogue and encounters between people who could not even look each other in the eye. Even today, although ill, he still follows a project concerning the Bethany Sanctuary. Bethany, mind you, is a complicated place because no military, Israeli or Palestinian, dares to set foot there. A far west area, but with this beautiful site that had fallen into disrepair over time. Thanks to Osama, we were able to get in touch with the local people, and also work there where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived.”

This crossroads of peoples, languages, religions is still today the destination of many pilgrims who come from all over the world to touch the places of faith. No one returns home as before. Because the Holy Land, says Tommaso, is a place that opens us to question. "In these days I received a letter from an elderly Italian gentleman, a life dedicated to politics and the Palestinian cause, a declared atheist, who after many years spent travelling in Palestine began to question God. And when he met some friends of CL in Italy, he began, together with his wife, a journey of faith that led him, at the age of seventy, to join the Fraternity.” Small seeds, we said.

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What makes this fruitfulness possible? "It is not a 'doing for the sake of doing', but a walking together to build a little piece of beauty," Saltini replies. "With Israelis, Christians and Palestinians we work a lot on culture because it teaches this, mosaics teach this, a beautiful church or a beautiful mosque to be restored teaches this, as do schools full of children who fill their desks instead of begging in the street. Beauty always points to the Truth. What happened did not happen because I am good, but because an Other used me. I have learnt that my responsibility, my vocation, lies in saying yes and that this alone builds something that lasts. In all these years of belonging to CL, even in the ups and downs there have been, I have seen incredible life and creativity flourish from our charism. How many friends, Memores, priests, families have supported us in our service, in so many different ways! How much friendship has flourished around this land that still has one strength: that of continuing to propose God to the world.”