In The Name Of God

A Re-Evaluation Of The Crusades

IT IS NAIVE to believe that history is simply a chronological record of events. History is never objective. It always includes an interpretation of the events. Events happen and historians color them!
It was in the summer of 1099 that the Christian armies re-conquered Jerusalem after three years of travel and military campaign. This year is the 900th anniversary of the First Crusade.

A Dark Legend

What were these crusades? They were military expeditions organized by the Church to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. Some claim they were 'armed pilgrims' acting in self defense, trying to recapture what was legitimately theirs. Others assert that they were campaigns of bloody and greedy soldiers who made a carnage of the Jews and Muslims they encountered.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries an intellectual movement developed in Europe which underscored the powers of human reason and belittled faith. This movement which auto-defined itself as the Enlightenment, was very keen in using the Crusades as a psychological weapon against the Church. They even invented the name 'Crusades' which means 'the war under the sign of the cross'. The Crusades were described as 'Holy Wars', a massacre of the Jews - a kind of an anti-chamber to the Holocaust-, another proof, they claimed, of how the Church eliminates its opponents in the name of orthodoxy.

However truth will make you free, said Jesus. And the Church is not afraid of truth. One of this pontificate's most stunning gestures, was John Paul's unprecedented call for an examination of conscience. "Another painful chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance is, that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth."

Under The Sign Of The Cross

What are the facts? "It is utter nonsense to view the Crusades outside of their historical context" remarks Professor Franco Cardini, the world's foremost expert on the subject. The historical milieu is always of cardinal importance when one studies past events.

When the Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in 638, the followers of the Mohammed went on a frenzy destroying all the Christian Churches built during the previous Byzantine period (324-640). The only surviving Church was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in order to tread on the same ground on which Jesus Christ walked, became a life threatening mission.

In late 1095, Pope Urban II, responding to an appeal from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Connenus, proclaimed a holy expedition to win the Holy Land from the Muslims. Thus guaranteeing a safe passage to the pilgrims and helping the Christians in the area. A contemporary illustration would be the NATO intervention to save the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo from the Serbs. The most important Frankish princes organized themselves in four different armies. There was even a peasant army led by the charismatic Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, which tried to precede the more princely army. They were massacred by the Turks in the Dardennelles.

The Christian army convened in Constantinople (North West of Turkey), then crossed into Syria where they captured Antioch and Edessa after long and difficult sieges. Jerusalem was captured in 1099. An intense period of reconstruction followed - Churches on the holy places and hospitals and houses for pilgrims. Jerusalem remained under Christian sovereignty until 1187 when Saladin recaptured it.

The hostile confrontation between Christianity and Islam in medieval Palestine continued and six more crusades were to follow. All of them however were full of internal conflicts and plagued with many problems. None of them even reached Jerusalem. Militarily, the Crusaders ended in failure. However, scholars clarify, the Crusades did produce positive cultural and economic results, even occasionally military alliances, between Christians and Moslems.

Lambs Or Lions?

An exaggerated self-blame is not healthy. It is obvious that the Crusades, as the Pope stressed in one Angelus speech, were a consequence of 'the prevailing medieval mentality'. The intention was good - to recapture 'holy places' which non-Christian rulers had usurped.

According to Dr. Cardini, the Crusades were never 'religious wars'; their purpose was not to force conversions or to suppress the infidel. "In fact the real interest in these expeditions was the restoration of peace in the East, out of service of the Christian brethren threatened by Moslems.' One important phenomenon of the Crusades was the fusion of two medieval ideals - monasticism and chivalry. This is how the Knights Templars, the Knights Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of Malta) and the Teutonic Knights came into being.

To pursue their agenda however, some historians and journalists overstate the brutality and gory aspect of these conflicts. Last week I was reading that "the Franks massacred 70,000 people in a mosque.' It must have been an enormous Mosque!

But there is no denying the simple fact that 'unholy' purposes distorted these high ideals. 'Piety, pugnacity and greed' compounded the holy intentions. Lots of bloodshed, too much, accompanied these campaigns. Warfare was viewed differently in the Middle Ages. Violence always begets violence.

Besides, the Gospel is very clear. 'Do not resist the evil one' says Jesus. 'Today we must be grateful to the Spirit of God, who enables us to more clearly understand that the appropriate way to deal with problems between peoples, religions and cultures, one that is most in harmony with the Gospel, is that of patient, firm and respectful dialogue,' stated the Pope in the Angelus speech of February 12, 1995.

Saint Francis of Assisi had understood this. The biographer Thomas of Celano recalls how Francis, wishing to bring Christ to the Infidels, in 1219 embarked at the port of Ancona for Egypt where he even managed to have a meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, nephew of Saladin. The Egyptian ruler was deeply impressed by Francis' sanctity. He remained several months on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. His evangelical simplicity was disarming. This prophetic gesture of love and courtesy toward the enemy is the Gospel

Jesus Christ is clear. When we try to be lions we lose. Our victory lies in remaining lambs.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.