Zealots will make the most inflamatory films and cartoons and give the most incendiary speeches knowing full well that this will spark people and even whole nations to violence. For those of us who think of ourselves as "Christ's Followers", we might recall that Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God". Peacemaking is a dangerous business, more dangerous than war perhaps, because in war only one side will try to kill you. Eight hundred years ago, in the midst of another war between Christians and Muslims, someone was brave enough to take Christ at his word and make the attempt.
In 1219 St. Francis and Brother Illuminato accompanied the armies of western Europe to Damietta, Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade. His desire was to speak peacefully with Muslim people about Christianity, even if it mean dying as a martyr. He tried to stop the Crusaders from attacking the Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but failed. After the defeat of the western armies, he crossed the battle line with Brother Illuminato, was arrested and beaten by Arab soldiers, and eventually was taken to the sultan, Malek al-Kamil. Al-Kamil was known as a kind, generous, fair ruler. He was nephew to the great Salah al-Din. At Damietta alone he offered peace to the Crusaders five times, and, according to western accounts, treated defeated Crusaders humanely. His goal was to establish a peaceful coexistence with Christians. After an initial attempt by Francis and the sultan to convert the other, both quickly realized that the other already knew and loved God. Francis and Illuminato remained with al-Kamil and his Sufi teacher Fakhr ad-din al-Farisi for as many as twenty days, discussing prayer and the mystical life. When Francis left, al-Kamil gave him an ivory trumpet, which is still preserved in the crypt of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. This encounter, which occurred between September 1 and 26, is a paradigm for interfaith dialog in our time. Despite differences in religion, people of prayer can find common ground in their experiences of God. Dialog demands that we truly listen to the other; but, before we can listen, we must see the other as a precious human being, loved by God. There is no other path to peace in this bloody 21st century. Francis and his brothers did not make this trip as part of the battle to regain the Holy Land. Rather, they went in opposition to the mainstream theological and political orthodoxies of the time, to meet the Muslim people, and to live among them as “lesser brothers.” Francis and his brothers went to be present among this people who were being portrayed as evil enemies of Christ, and, in his evangelism of presence, Francis found the spirit of God to be alive and at work within the Muslim people, then called “the Saracens”. Francis admired their public, repeated acknowledgment of God and call to prayer, and he appreciated the deep reverence they showed to their holy book, the Qur’an. While the main trend of the time was for Christian preachers to deliver strident, inflammatory sermons against Islam, Francis forbade his brothers to take part in these exercises. He demanded that his brothers be present first and foremost, living with and among the Saracens. They were to preach only if they felt that it would “please the Lord.” Francis worked to prevent the brotherhood from becoming embroiled in the grasp for civil and ecclesiastical offices and power, and kept the community’s focus on serving their neighbors for the glory of God only.The result of this encounter was that Francis was allowed safe conduct. Christian control of Holy sites was granted and has remained until this day. Otherwise, Francis' brave act of peace-making has been largely forgotten. For that matter, so have the words of Christ which Francis acted upon. The challenge of our day is reclaim these words of Christ and act on them.
-Jesus-Like Living in the Midst of Other Religions by Ron Cole.