Guestview: St. Francis of Assisi — hero of interfaith peace during the Crusades

October 27, 2011

(Saint Francis of Assisi and scenes of his life, Pescia, San Francesco, 1235)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Paul Moses, professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is author of The Saint and the Sultan: the Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace .

By Paul Moses

Given the rise of inter-religious conflict in Egypt, the gathering of religious leaders at Assisi on Oct. 27 to mark the World Day of Prayer for Peace should be treated as something more than an exercise in making nice.

It is an opportunity for the world’s religious leaders to demonstrate that religion should be a force for peace, not cause for violence. That pressing need is one reason that Pope Benedict XVI, who opposed the prayer-fest when Pope John Paul II initiated it in 1986, has come to embrace the gathering  – with some modifications – over the strenuous objections of some conservatives in his own church.

The event is being held in Assisi, a quaint but out-of-the-way hill town in Umbria, because it is rooted in the generous spirit of its beloved St. Francis of Assisi.  It is worth remembering that Francis – saint of birdbaths and nature-lovers – was a flesh-and-blood hero who risked a lot in his effort to show it was possible for Christians and Muslims to treat one another with respect and even love.

From early in his ministry, Francis thirsted to reach out to Muslims. Traveling to Morocco, he had to turn back after reaching Spain. A second trip ended in a storm on the Mediterranean. But in 1219, he succeeded in reaching Egypt in the midst of the Fifth Crusade. Risking his life, he crossed a battlefield near the city of Damietta at the mouth of the Nile and succeeded in reaching the enemy’s commander, Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

The two men hit it off. Remarkably, the sultan allowed Francis to preach for several days in his camp. When Francis returned to Italy, he revised the Rule of his order to encourage his friars to live among Muslims peacefully and without polemics – a revolutionary approach, considering that the Fifth Crusade was still being fought.

When the sultan prevailed in the war, he shocked the Christian troops with the mercy he showed them. Crusade leaders were convinced that Sultan al-Kamil was secretly a Christian.

But the truth was that the sultan was simply being a good Muslim. His civility to Francis was consistent with the Qur’an’s praise for holy Christian monks, for example.

Sultan al-Kamil, nephew of the great Muslim warrior Saladin, was a friend to Egypt’s Christians, handling their grievances with great sensitivity. When a dispute broke out over whether a certain site in Cairo should be used for a mosque or a church, he researched it personally and determined in favor of the Christians, angering fellow Muslims. Like Francis, he took a risk to show his people what was right.

That is what leaders, religious and secular, need to do today.

Like Francis and the sultan, the religious leaders in Assisi need to recover what is best in their own traditions. In a violent era, Francis recovered Christianity’s tradition of non-violence and love for the enemy. Sultan al-Kamil recovered the Islamic tradition of respect for Christian holiness, even while the target of a Crusade.

Leaders of the world’s religions should be prepared to risk being unpopular with segments of their own people if that’s what is needed to show that religion must be a force for peace and harmony, not violence and division.


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