Today is Memorial Day, and the horrors of the war in Iraq have been brought home to us more than ever. Not only are we recalling the servicemen and -women who have been killed and injured since the war began, just today two civilian journalists were killed and others seriously injured (bringing the total of journalists killed since the war began to 71). More than ever we are aware that the Muslim countries and nations of the West are only getting worse.
I wrote this little piece in 1990, during the first Gulf War, when it was published in Our Sunday Visitor. Later, not long after 9/11, I rewrote it slightly and had it distributed in my Secular Franciscan fraternity. Today, once again, not much needs to be changed.
Imagine this scene: the allied and Iraqi armies are facing each other in the desert, preparing for battle. Suddenly two men from the allied side slip across the lines into enemy territory. When captured by Iraqi soldiers, they ask to be taken to Saddam Hussein, saying they have a message for him. When they are brought to Saddam, he asks, â€œDo you have a message from your military leaders?â€ â€œNo,â€ they answer, “we have a message from God. We want you to believe in Jesus Christ.â€
This scene did not take place during the war with Iraq, but something very like it happened more than 750 years ago, when Christians were also at war with a Muslim country. The Muslim leader then was the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, and the two foolhardy souls were Brother Francis of Assisi and his companion Brother Illuminato. In his day, St. Francis was considered a lunatic for even considering that the sultan might want to listen to him. Today he is considered a pioneer in Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
As a young man aspiring to knighthood, Francis had loved reading the legends of chivalry which told how Christian hereoes Roland, Oliver and Charlemagne had fought the Muslims. Like other Christians of his time, he believed that those who died in battle against the infidels were martyrs for the faith. He often dreamed of going on the Crusades.
But then God touched his heart and changed his entire life. He devoted himself to a life of poverty and preaching God’s love. He now burned with the desire to convert the Muslims instead of fighting them. Francis obtained Pope Innocent III’s blessing for his project, but illness cut short his first efforts to travel to Morocco and Syria to preach to the Muslims.
Francisâ€™ dream was unusual for his time. He told his friend, Cardinal Ugolino, â€œGod has sent my brothers for the good and salvation of all men in the entire world. . . They will be received not only in believing countries but also among the infidels.â€ He explained that if they were faithful to their life of poverty and humility, they would be able to live among the Muslims, who would supply for their needs as the Christians had done. This was at a time when even the clergy called Muslims â€œSons of the devil,â€ â€œan abominable race,â€ and â€œvermin to be cleared from the Holy Land.â€ Few believed that Christians and Muslims could live in peace.
In 1219, Francis and his brothers finally managed to reach Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, where Christians from nearly every European nation (a sort of U.N peacekeeping force) were besieging the city of Damietta. When they captured the city, the infuriated sultan offered his soldiers a large sum in gold for the head of every Christian brought to him.
Francis and Illuminato approached Cardinal Pelagius, the papal legate in Damietta, to ask permission to visit the sultan. The cardinal thought they were crazy. He warned them that if they went, he would not be responsible for their deaths. Undaunted, the two headed into Muslim territory, where they were captured and brought before the sultan.
Malik al-Kamil was often cruel to Christians, but he was a religious Muslim and had great respect for holy men. He received the friars courteously and suggested that they debate with his own theologians. Instead, Francis proposed a â€œtrial by fire,â€ a common practice in the Middle Ages. He offered to enter a fire alone or with one of the Sultanâ€™s men, asking the sultan to promise that if he were to come out alive, he and his people would accept it as proof that Jesus Christ was truly God.
Some scholars think that Francis may have been inspired to make this proposal after learning of an incident in the life of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Mohammed had regarded Jesus as a prophet, though not as the Son of God. According to Muslim tradition, he once invited the Christian clergy from Najran to undergo a similar ordeal to prove Christâ€™s Incarnation. The Christians had refused the test, and the Muslims attributed it to their lack of sincere faith. In offering to do what those Christians hadrefused to do, Francis was the only Christian of his time who tried to enter into the Muslim psychology.
The sultan would not agree to the test because it would make him look like a doubter of his faith to his people. But he was touched by Francis’ willingness to risk his life to save Muslim souls, and gave him and his brothers permission to visit the Holy Land without the usual payment demanded of Christians. Before the brothers left, he said to Francis, â€œPray for me, so that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that are most pleasing to him.â€ He then had the two escorted safely back to the Christian camp, where the Crusaders could not contain their amazement that they had escaped alive.
After Francis returned to Italy, he found out that five of the brothers who had gone as missionaries to Morocco had provoked the local Muslim leader by insulting Mohammed and had been put to death. It may have been this which led him to spell out the attitude that his brothers should adopt towards Islam in a revised rule for his order, finished in 1221. In it he asked the friars who â€œgo out among Saracens [Muslims] and other unbelievers . . . not to dispute or be contentious, but to be submissive to every human creature for God’s sake, and to acknowledge that they are Christians.â€ He knew that this would mean submitting to laws in Muslim countries that restricted the practice of the Christian faith, but he felt that a peaceful and humble attitude would touch hearts more than any argument would.
After Francisâ€™ death, and after his own brothers were recruited by the Pope to preach in support of the Crusades, his ideas about relations with the Muslims were almost forgotten by his own order, and remained forgotten for more than 700 years. But in 1985, in line with the 2nd Vatican Council, which called for friendly dialogue with non-Christians, the Franciscan order once again adopted Francis’ words as their mission charter, and are following them in their missions among Muslims. Brother Jean GwenoleJeusset, the President of the order’s Commission on Islam, has called St. Francis’ words “a prophetic commentary on Vatican II.”
St. Francisâ€™ example has perhaps never been so important as it is now, when hatred between Muslims and Christians has been stirred up by the war in Iraq. Muslims in the U. S. have been the target of hate messages. Beheadings are continuing, and no end is in sight.
St. Francis shows us that efforts to understand others and simple acts of love can be more effective than any words. If all Christians followed his example, and preached love and respect for those of other faiths by our lives, is it possible that we might have more of the peace he preached so fervently?
If you think this couldn’t happen in the age of Saddam Hussein, think about Francis and the sultan.
No matter what we think about the war, let’s remember that violence can never accomplish as much as love can.