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Francis of Assisi and Sultan Kamil

January 19, 2011

They Know God Is Great, But Who Will Tell Them God Is Love?
By: William Larson

The date was 1219. The purposeless Fifth Crusade dragged on and on. St. Francis of Assisi and a few chosen friends prayed about what most Christians in that day thought was a senseless and foolhardy mission: convert the most powerful Muslim in the world. Attempting to win no less than the Kamil Sultan of Egypt was incredible to say the least. Such faith, holy audacity, and spiritual concern for Muslims provide a shining example in our day, when many Christians are tempted to hate and fear them.

Francis took a dozen brothers through Syria and then on to Egypt. He had first appealed to Pope Gregory IX, but was denied permission, so he appealed to Cardinal Pelagius for permission to travel to the sultan. So radical was the sultan that he had promised a Byzantine gold piece for anyone who brought the head of a Christian. The cardinal described the sultan as “treacherous, brainless, and false hearted,” but after some delay granted permission because of Francis’s unusual zeal. Where other Christians saw the face of evil, Francis saw a man without the Savior, and compassion welled up inside of him.

For the last lap of the journey Francis and his trusted friend Illumimato left the Crusader’s camp without looking back. As the friars walked straight into the battlefield, they were caught, beaten, and brought to the sultan, who was pleased because he thought they wanted to become Muslims. “On the contrary,” Francis said. “We have a message that you should surrender your soul to God.” With this introduction, he proclaimed the triune God and Jesus Christ the Savior of all. When the sultan was advised to behead them, he said no, and invited them to stay on as guests. Francis said, “If you are willing to become converts of Christ, you and your people, I shall only be too glad to stay with you.”

Such a response to Arab hospitality was unheard of. Francis then offered to walk through fire if it would help convince the Muslim leader. If he came out unharmed the sultan should be prepared to embrace Christ. The sultan demurred, but was impressed, and offered presents, which Francis declined to accept. Kamil became even more amazed and permitted him to preach the gospel in his house and compound. Upon his departure the sultan asked the friar to pray that God would show him the right way.

Evidently, the sultan did not convert, for he later retook Jerusalem. But had it not been for the dismal failure and frustration of such a misguided response to Muslims in the form of the Crusades, Francis would never have set out on his mission. More importantly, Stephen Neill says it was the manifestation of a new era: conversion would follow love and good deeds, not force of arms. Soon thereafter, several Franciscan missionaries were sent to the kingdom of Morocco, where five were martyred for Christ.

In our day, given the rise of Muslim-Christian tension due to the extremism of a few radicals, it is often hard for us to know how to respond. For example, a New Year’s Day bombing at Saints Church in Alexandria marked the worst attack against Egyptian Christians in recent memory. Three days later, Punjab’s governor was assassinated because he spoke against an inhumane blasphemy law in Pakistan that is routinely used to bludgeon Christians. In this context, it is helpful to remember what motivated St. Francis during the horrendous Crusades. Millions of Muslims wake up every day with no church, no Bible, and no one to tell them about the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Five times a day from countless minarets in their midst they hear God is great. But who will tell them God is love?

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