In the mediatic iconography accompanying Pope Francis’ visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the photo of the meeting between His Holiness and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, was occasionally flanked by a picture of the embrace between Sultan al-Malik al Kamil of Egypt (1180-1238) and St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) in Damietta in 1219. In this representation, the images of the two encounters are besides chronologically linked with the specification “800 years”.
The meeting between the Saint of Assisi and the Sultan finds confirmation in several ancient sources, though their particulars are not identical. Perhaps this diversity results from the multiplicity of the sources themselves. One of the earliest sources of this narrative is the one by the would-be Cardinal Jacques de Vitry’s Historia Occidentalis (c.1221/5). This chronicle is counted as a principal commentary on the ecclesiastical life in the 13th century. The book speaks in glowing terms about the humble origin and the quick spread of the Minorite Order and its popularity among the masses. Jacques de Vitry writes: “We have seen the founder and master of this Order, Brother Francis, a simple, uneducated man beloved by God and man, whom all the others obey as their highest superior. He was so moved by spiritual fervour and exhilaration that after he reached the army of Christians before Damietta in Egypt, he boldly set out for the camp of the Sultan of Egypt, fortified only with the shield of faith”. The book then outlines how Francis and his companion were taken to the Sultan, “who listened very attentively to Francis”. One gets the impression that Francis was the revered guest of the Sultan for several weeks, when the host “ordered that Francis be returned to our camp with all reverence and security. At the end he said to Francis: ‘Pray for me, that God may deign to reveal to me the law and the faith which is more pleasing to Him’”.
During the course of his public Audience on 27 January 2010 in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, referred to this encounter of Francis of Assisi with the Sultan: "In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go and speak, in Egypt, with the Muslim Sultan al-Malik al Kamil, to preach the Gospel of Jesus there as well. I would like to underline this episode of the life of Saint Francis, which is very relevant. In an era in which a clash between Christianity and Islam was taking place, Francis, deliberately armed only with his faith and his personal meekness, effectively undertook the path of dialogue. The chronicles speak to us of a benevolent and cordial reception received from the Muslim sultan. It is a model to which even today the relations between Christians and Muslims should be inspired: promoting a dialogue in truth, mutual respect and mutual understanding”.
In fact, Francis of Assisi himself had chalked out for his brothers a methodology for interacting with the members of other religions. In his Earlier Rule of 1221, XVI, he writes: “Let any brother, then, who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister and servant… As for the brothers who go, they can live among the Saracens and nonbelievers in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments and disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians. The other way is to announce the Word of God, when they see that it pleases the Lord…”. In fact, just the previous year, that is on 16 January 1220, five of Francis’ brothers had been put to death in Morocco for having preached provokingly against Islam and its believers. Francis had learnt his lesson from this debacle, and it is mirrored in the Rule of 1221, XVI, where he offers the brothers his new evangelisation methodology. Historians opine that it was thanks to Francis’ resolve to emulate the Islamic faithful at following their everyday prayer schedule that the tradition of praying the Angelus thrice a day at the toll of church bells took shape in the western Church.
In 1984, The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued a key document entitled The Attitude of the Church toward Followers of other Religions. In article 17, it sums up the significant contribution of Francis of Assisi to carrying out interreligious dialogue: “Among the many examples which could be drawn from the history of Christian mission, the norms given by St Francis of Assisi, in Regola non bollata of 1221, are significant. The friars who ‘through divine inspiration would desire to go among the Muslims… can establish spiritual contacts with them [Muslims] in two ways: a way which does not raise arguments and disputes, but rather are subject to every human creature for the love of God and confess themselves to be Christians. The other way is that when they see that it would be pleasing to the Lord, they should announce the word of God”.
On 4 February 2019, at the Interreligious Meeting in the Presence of the Civil Authorities and the Diplomatic Corps in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis acknowledged that he was at the heels of Francis of Assisi: “With a heart grateful to the Lord, in this eighth centenary of the meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al Kamil, I have welcomed the opportunity to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren. We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace”.
At the same Interreligious Meeting, the Pope would continue: “War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death! Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world's religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word "war". Let us return it to its miserable crudeness. Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya. Together, as brothers and sisters in the one human family willed by God, let us commit ourselves against the logic of armed power, against the monetization of relations, the arming of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor; let us oppose all this with the sweet power of prayer and daily commitment to dialogue. Our being together today is a message of trust, an encouragement to all people of goodwill, so that they may not surrender to the floods of violence and the desertification of altruism. God is with those who seek peace. From heaven he blesses every step which, on this path, is accomplished on earth”.
Though we do not have the text of Francis of Assisi’s conversation with Sultan al-Malik al Kamil, his gesture in the context of the then-ongoing fifth Crusade was communicating the very same message that the Pope was giving. The Crusades that the Church had been organising were generating untold misery and suffering both in the Christian West and the Islamic East. They have besides created the still-lingering ill-feeling and bitterness in human hearts. Bloody wars, terrorist attacks, mutual suspicion and diffidence are some of the aftereffects of the spread of the “the clash of civilisation” theory today. On his return to Rome, Pope Francis said on Wednesday that he fervently hoped that his historic trip to the Arabian peninsula will help dispel the notion of an inevitable clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam.
On the flight back from the UAE, Pope Francis declared that the Document on Human Fraternity, signed by him and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, was prepared “with much reflection and prayer”, and that it is based on Vatican II; it represents a step forward — a step that, for Catholics, is rooted in the Second Vatican Council. It is, in fact, a reiteration and down-to-earth application of the conciliar Declaration Nostra aetate, 3: “Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”.
Pope Francis returned to Rome on 6 February from the UAE, where in Abu Dhabi he presided at the largest public Mass ever celebrated on the peninsula where Islam was born. And on the following day in Rome, he addressed as usual the crowds in the St Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Here also he spoke from the heart and said: “In an era, like ours, where there is a strong temptation to see a clash between Christian civilization and the Islamic one, and even to consider religions as a source of conflict, we wanted to send another clear and decisive signal that encounter is possible”.
On his return from the Middle East, Francis of Assisi had the inspiration to re-enact the Christmas scene by making a crib in the central Italian town of Greccio. It was indeed a public gesture of disapproval and condemnation of every war and bloodshed, even though it could have been motivated by apparently noble causes like religion. According to Prof. Chiara Frugoni: “What Francis wants to say is that it is useless to go to the Holy Land to liberate the holy places, that Bethlehem can be everywhere, even in Greccio, provided Christ is in the heart”.(Published on 11th February 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 07)