To convert or to co-exist? That is the question.

Detail of St. Francis of Assisi from “Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St. Francis and four Angels,” a fresco executed by Giovanni Cimabue between 1278-80 for the lower church of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, Italy

Pope Francis has a model for Muslim engagement in St. Francis of Assisi

Omar Sacirbey |


(RNS) Just as many Catholics have connected Pope Francis’ humility and austere lifestyle with that of St. Francis of Assisi, those seeking clues on the new pontiff’s approach to Christian-Muslim relations see another example in the iconic namesake.

In a little known episode in 1219, St. Francis left the camp of the crusaders besieging the walled Egyptian city of Damietta and crossed enemy lines to meet with Malik al-Kamil, the young sultan of Egypt.

“I can’t believe that the choice of his namesake is only about deference to poor people, as important and admirable as that is,” said the Rev. William Hugo, a Capuchin Franciscan brother and priest in St. Joseph, Wis. “The story of Francis seeking out Al-Kamil would surely raise up in Pope Francis the desire to reach out and be in relationship with those suffering a separation or (who are) excluded.”

A desert encounter

Scholars are divided, however, on whether it was peace or proselytizing that motivated St. Francis. The earliest biographies of him depict a more hard line Christian who sought to convert Al-Kamil.

“Francis’s goal was, of course, conversion, not coexistence. And while some 13th-century Christian commentators criticized the crusades for their violence, Francis was not among those critics. His joining up with the 5th Crusade suggests a tacit acceptance of crusading,” said Philip Daileader, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Many later biographies, however, say St. Francis’ motivation was more dovish.

“He wanted to see the sultan because he was pained, and he felt guilty,” said Jon Sweeney, author of the new book, “Francis of Assisi In His Own Words: The Essential Writings.” “He saw the carnage and it was his church that was doing it.”

Conversion or coexistence?

Chris van Gorder, a scholar of Christian-Muslim relations at Baylor University, asserts that St. Francis, a former soldier, was driven by compassion, a hatred for war, a desire to learn from others, and “to build missionistic bridges of reconciliation and healing.”

“St. Francis of Assisi was a confident evangelist and a fearless peacemaker who was appalled at the rapacious violence of his era,” said van Gorder.

But even if St. Francis’ goal was conversion, it was not an end unto itself, but a means to peace.

“We’re seeing the church interpret Francis in modern times as a bridge,” said Paul Moses, author of “The Saint and the Sultan,” a 2009 book which explores St. Francis’ pivotal engagement with Islam. “To Muslims ears, the choice of Francis for a name should sound good.”

Andrea Stanton, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, said peace was Francis’ motive.

St. Francis of Assisi (seen here in a stained glass window at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu, Hawaii) is the patron saint of animals.

“His attempt to convert the sultan was a conflict resolution exercise: if the sultan embraced Christianity, the wars would end, because a Christian would govern Jerusalem,” Stanton said.What makes Francis’ trip all the more improbable is that Muslims were depicted as blood-thirsty heretics inspired by the devil, and venturing into their camp meant certain death.

“Attitudes toward Muslims at that time were hostile beyond imaginings,” said van Gorder. “St. Francis was prepared to be a martyr and was warned by his colleagues that there was a price for the head of a Christian in the sultan’s court, and that his death would almost be certain if he persisted in his plans to go to the sultan’s camp.”

Although there are no first-hand accounts of the meeting, historians say it had a tremendous influence on both men. Al-Kamil, known as a tolerant ruler who offered religious freedom to Christians, received St. Francis hospitably, allowing him to stay in his court for several days and even preach.

The two talked about religion, war and other issues. During his stay, St. Francis made no requests of the sultan, except shortly before he departed, when he asked for a meal, possibly with the hope of breaking bread with Al-Kamil.

“The hagiography portrays the two men as having a profound impact on each other. They parted in peace with each other and gained respect for the other,” said Hugo.

A model for 21st-century dialogue

The visit had a profound impact on St. Francis, who returned to Italy the next year, and made a monumental change to his nascent order’s rules. Before the visit, Franciscans were allowed to engage Muslims with the goal of converting them. After the trip, he revised the rule to say it was also permissible to live peaceably among Muslims and under Muslim rule, without trying to convert them.

“That was revolutionary at that time,” said Moses.

While it’s not clear if Pope Francis will look to St. Francis for interfaith guidance, he wouldn’t be the first pontiff to do so. In 1986, Pope John Paul II led the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, inviting religious leaders from several different faiths to the saint’s birthplace. Benedict, who was not a big supporter of the World Day of Prayer, according to Moses, returned for the 25th anniversary in 2011.

“Pope John Paul II looked to Francis as a figure that can provide inspiration in today’s world as to how we approach other religions,” said Moses. “The pope didn’t just pick that site because it’s easy to get to.”

9 thoughts on “To convert or to co-exist? That is the question.

  1. The Monks of Tibhirine is the true story of Christians willing to die serving a Muslim flock during the political nightmare that unfolds in Algeria during the 1990s. The decapitation of seven French Trappists kidnapped from their monastery in the village of Tibhirine provides the thread for this real life drama of sacrificial love-of Christians who put their lives at risk for their Muslim friends, and Muslims who risk death for Christians.

    “It was like our Bible,” said Xavier Beauvois, producer of the film Of Gods and Men from Sony Classics, which opened in New York February 25, 2011.

  2. What were Trappist monks doing in a Muslim country in the first place?

    Their presence, like that of all the other Christians in Algeria, is a legacy of the French colonization of Algeria. After the war of independence ended in 1962, some French and people of other nationalities who had been sympathetic to the Algerians’ desire for self-determination remained in the country. The Church had a dual role: to serve the needs of Muslims through good works by running schools and hospitals and caring for the aged, and to minister to the remaining Europeans. In a Muslim country, Christians must show the reality of their faith through their works and their sincere piety. Prayer is very important in the Muslim faith as a way of showing humility and gratitude towards our Creator. That’s why the presence of the monks was so important historically. They were first brought to Algeria in the early part of the French occupation in 19th century to show Muslims that the French were not all atheists. The Muslims had been shocked by the absence of outward signs that the French were believers.

    Why did the monks stay on despite warnings to leave by both the French and Algerian governments?

    They stayed on for the same reason a mother or a nurse exposes herself to danger to take care of a child with TB or cholera. As Trappists, they had taken vows of stability and poverty. Trappists commit themselves to stay with their chosen community. They had developed strong bonds of friendship and trust towards their Muslim neighbors who reciprocated that friendship. That meant sharing in their suffering and insecurity, which was no less than that of the monks. Muslims, not Christians, were the main targets of the armed militants. There was a strong sense of solidarity that would have been broken if they had hightailed it to a safe place when their neighbors did not have that option.

    What relevance does the story have for post-Sept. 11?

    It reminds us that just as the Algerian government was seen as an ersatz French power by the militants opposing it, so today the U.S. is seen by many militants as kind of indirect colonial power supporting governments that are often arbitrary and oppressive. al-Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency are following the Bush doctrine: The friend of my enemy is my enemy.

    The story of the monks also demonstrates the need to maintain a very differentiated picture of Islam and of Muslims. There are as many different kinds of Muslims as there are different kinds of Christians. And to remember that violence doe not just happen. It is a fever rooted in a sick, festering, societal situation that is going untreated. Islamic political violence is a form of desperation in the face of injustice or the hypocrisy of the governments, which have become insufferable to certain elements in society.

    Sept.11 is also a reminder of what dangerous weapons holy scriptures are in the hands of those full of anger and hatred, and whose leaders manipulate scripture as an a la carte menu to serve political purposes. They can often skillfully convert the anger of the poorly instructed (in religion) into an expression of holy righteousness. St. Benedictine warns his monks of “the zeal of bitterness” that leads to Hell.

    What do you think we can learn from the monks in this story?

    The importance of controlling our passions, especially anger, and not let our passions turn into raging hatred. And to remember that more than anything else, terrorists are angry people. The means they use show that they typically belong to the weak, marginalized elements of a society, and their frustration drives them to use their own bodies as weapons of destruction. If they had cruise missiles and bombers, they would use them instead. It was certainly the case with the FLN in Algeria. But to win, they need to be seen as having moral arguments on their side in the bigger world court of public opinion.

  3. Some people today might say that Christian-Muslim love is an oxymoron. Yes, there are Muslims who preach hatred of the Christian West, even though fewer and fewer in the West (outside the US) are practicing or even professing Christians. There are no Muslims I have heard of who preach hatred or even disrespect for Jesus Christ, who is a much revered and sinless prophet in Islam.

    There is, however, an active Christian minority that preaches hatred of Islam and regularly insults the Prophet Muhammad. Elements with political agendas on both sides benefit from blackening the other, and the media have been willing accomplices to this downward phobic spiral. “Of Gods and Men” is film that could help right perceptions.

    Despite pleas in 1996 from both French and Algerian authorities to leave for a safer place when threatened by Islamic extremists, the monks remained at their remote monastery in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains out of deep sense of commitment to their extended family of villagers who depended on them for moral, medical, and material support. Like their neighbors, the monks trembled with fear at night. They argued among themselves: does the Good Shepherd abandon his flock when the wolves come? Does a mother abandon a sick, infectious child? Does their vow of poverty allow for them to flee to safer ground when their friends cannot?

    When seven of the monks were kidnapped, it was not their neighbors who did it. Instead, it was a contract job that employed a group from outside the area to take the monks away from their dangerous situation—to be traded, in effect. But something went wrong along the way. Of one thing I am certain: killing them was not the plan. If that had been the case, they would not have been schlepped around the country for two months nor would negotiations for their release have taken place. Yet for some viewers, I suspect this will be seen as simply another “bad-Muslims-kill–good-Christians” story—exactly what the abbot of the monastery feared when he wrote his last testament, read at the end of the film.

    The film works very well dramatically as a struggle between faith and fear. By necessity it leaves out important and broader story components. The tenacious commitment of Abbot Christian de Chergé (played by Lambert Wilson) to serve God in Algeria had been formed in him as a soldier serving in the French army during the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962, when his life was saved by a Muslim friend, an Algerian policeman named Mohammed who faced down local rebels who wanted to shoot Christian one day when they were taking a walk—a time when they would discuss their faith.

    That friendship cost the Algerian his life the next day. For Christian, Mohammed’s sacrifice was a gift of love reinforcing his belief that the spirit of Jesus Christ resides in all his children. For the rebels, the friend of my enemy is my enemy.

    The film doesn’t have room to tell about the seventy-plus imams who, based on the same logic, were assassinated in the 1990s for denouncing what the terrorists were doing in the name of Islam. The terrorists themselves could show respect for the monks. In a dramatic scene in the film, Saya Attia, head of the terrorist group that intruded upon the monastery on Christmas Eve 1993 with demands for medical help, apologizes to Christian for disturbing their celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Left out are the leader’s final words to Christian when he extends a hand in friendship: “We don’t consider you foreigners…you are religious.”

    Nor does the viewer know that the tiny hamlet of Tibhirine was inhabited by families whose homes in the mountains had been bombed by the French during the war for independence. They had fled to the protection of the monastery, a holy place where the Christian “marabouts” (Arabic for religious teachers) sheltered them until they could build their own homes.

    I have one regret about the film. It might have ended on a more positive note for Christian-Muslim relations by showing the genuine remorse of much of the Algerian population. Archbishop Henri Teissier of Algiers received sacks of letters from ordinary Algerians after the monks’ deaths were confirmed. The letters expressed a deep sense of solidarity with the monks as well as a sense of shame that was captured by this one: “No matter what has happened, we truly love you. You are part of us. We have failed in our duty—to protect you, to love you. Forgive us…You must accomplish your divine mission with us. I believe it is God’s plan.”

    Universal fraternal love is the essence of Christianity and all true religion. Otherwise, religion degenerates into celestial nationalism. Christian himself frequently said that if religion doesn’t help us to live together, it is worthless.

    The idea may seem laughably naïve in a post-9/11 world. Love, however, has nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with good will, justice, empathy, and respect for others. Like their Savior, the monks’ lives were not taken. They were gifts of love.

    John W. Kiser is the author of “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria” (St. Martins Press, 2002).

  4. There is a CMS supported nurse who works with the AFAR people of northern Ethiopia. She is a devout christian who is also married to a devout Muslim. And it works beautifully. She is also a person
    Whom is deeply respected among the Ethiopian people.

  5. “For Christian (who had been saved by the Muslim and paid for it with his life), Mohammed’s sacrifice was a gift of love reinforcing his belief that the spirit of Jesus Christ resides in all his children.”

  6. From Rob Buckingham (C3)


    What is your church’s attitude towards gay people? What is your church’s view on other religions? These are the two questions young adults most often ask concerning the church these days.

    The first of these questions I’ve attempted to answer in my last two blogs – Is Jesus Anti-Gay? and The Acceptance Controversy. The second question is the subject of this blog.

    This question is usually asked because of the exclusive nature of the Christian faith. That is, Christians believe it is only through the completed work of Jesus on the cross and His subsequent resurrection, that a person can have a relationship with God. I believe that! Bible verses such as these are used to substantiate this:

    In John 14:6, Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

    Acts 4:12 states “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

    The problem arises when the exclusiveness of the Christian faith leads to a lack of tolerance and respect towards those of other faiths. Some Christians have been guilty of this for centuries – and those of other faiths have been equally guilty.

    I believe that Jesus calls all people to live lives of love, tolerance and respect towards others. This is particularly born out in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, in which he illustrates what it means to love our neighbour. A Jewish man is robbed. Two people of like faith show no compassion towards him. Then along comes a man of another faith – a Samaritan – and it is he who shows the qualities of compassion, love and respect. Jesus teaches that loving our neighbour means showing these qualities even towards those with whom we disagree. People of all religions would do well to heed Jesus’ teaching on this.

    Even a casual look on the internet reveals the amount of persecution that is still going on in the world today – Christians being persecuted by Muslims; Muslims being persecuted by Christians; Buddhists being persecuted by Christians and Muslims; Christians being persecuted by Buddhists; Christians persecuting Hindus and vice versa – you get the picture? No wonder many people sit back and want nothing to do with religion.

    As Christians we need to learn to move beyond the stereotypes. Yes, there are people with evil plans in every religion, but there are far more people of each religion who are good.

    While we were on holiday last year in Malaysia I met two such people – two Muslim guys from Saudi Arabia. They were in their mid-twenties and we met over a game of water volleyball. Later that afternoon we sat together drinking tea and chatting about the differences and similarities in each other’s culture and faith. It was one of the most enjoyable conversations I’d had in ages and, dare I say, the presence of God was very evident while we chatted. This encounter reminded me of how similar human beings are. We might have differences in skin colour, eye shape, language, religion and culture; but we are all made in the image of God and we all came from the same parents – originally.

    So, while we continue to hold to the exclusivity of our faith, let us also reach out in love, compassion, respect and tolerance to those who are different – and discover the similarities. One thing I know – this pleases the heart of God.

  7. Exquisite love, exquisite heartbreak: the last testament of Dom Christian

    He was one of the monks beheaded by Muslim extremists in Algiers in 1996 — the basis of the story retold in the acclaimed film “Of Gods and Men.” He wrote his last testament when he thought his life might end in martyrdom.

    His life of service and sacrifice for his Muslim friends (His chiildren of Islam) demonstrates Christ in action and the ability to see Christ in all.

    Really moving stuff.

    The end, in which he addresses the one who will one day kill him — “my last minute friend” — is astonishing.

    Take a look:

    If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

    I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time, to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

    I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’ t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom,” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

    I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.

    My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

    This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

    And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”– to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!

    Algiers, 1st December 1993
    Tibhirine, 1st January 1994

    This is the real stuff, the heart of the cross. To recognize that we are complicit in the suffering of the world and therefore to beg forgiveness for OURSELVES when we are the victim of hatred, AND to beg forgiveness for the perpetrator is so radical, so goes against our ego-based notion of justice, that we want to somehow water the message down. Make it blander, more palatable, more in keeping with the earthly realm. Blander and at the same time more seemingly effective, productive, worthy of notice, results-geared. What kind of loser would pray for his enemy? What possible good could that do? The world doesn’t give points for prayer, for the long, hard spiritual warfare we wage silently, hidden from the eyes of the world, in our hearts. The work from which all real peace springs…can only spring.. The work that leads us to see that the problem is not “out there.” The problem, as Dorotheus of Gaza knew centuries ago, is in us…

    That remarkable witness remains a profound mystery — at once sorrowful, glorious, joyful, luminous. Indeed it is. And it is a fitting contemporary meditation for this week we call Holy.

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