March 28, 2003

St. Francis, the Sultan
and the Quest for Peace

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


From aggression to peacemaking
St. Francis meets the Sultan
A modern-day risk-taker
Prayer for world peace

The die has been cast! President Bush has decided to invade Iraq and remove the regime of Saddam Hussein—despite many opposing voices around the world.

What do those who argued for a peaceful solution do now? For starters, we hope and pray that the dreaded consequences many feared, such as loss of life and escalating tensions between Christians and Muslims, can be minimized. In addition, we try harder to be voices and instruments of peace and understanding—and builders of a global human family as the Spirit inspires each of us.

More than once President Bush has tried to convince us, as well as Muslims around the world, that his war is not against Islam. But what must it look like to the Muslim world when an avowed Christian, and the leader of the world's only superpower, determines to depose with overwhelming force the head of a Muslim nation? Although many of Iraq's Muslim neighbors (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) are not particularly fond of Hussein, President Bush's aggressive determination to invade a Muslim land must make words about not being hostile to Islam seem something of a bad joke.

From aggression to peacemaking

Twelve years ago, when American troops were in the Persian Gulf and on the brink of going to war with Iraq in that first Gulf War, I had a conversation with a Franciscan friar working in Jordan. A native of Lebanon, he was director at the time of a Catholic high school in Amman, attended by 627 Christians and 706 Muslims. When I asked him how the Western troops were looked upon, he replied that many in the Arab world saw "the American and western forces in the Persian Gulf as new Crusaders seeking to occupy Muslim lands." Nor did the Arab peoples fail to notice, according to the friar, that the United States was in no "similar hurry to solve the Palestinian question in Jerusalem." The same perspective is no doubt held with even greater conviction right now.

We cannot abandon our efforts, as a nation and as individuals, to move from the path of aggression and violence to that of peacemaking and diplomacy, and to improve relations with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Clearly, one of the reasons Pope John Paul II speaks out in opposition to the war with Iraq is his desire to heal relationships between Christians and Muslims, not inflame them. He is keenly aware that in many Islamic countries, Christians live as minority communities and can be subjected to duress because of the perceived aggression of the Christian West.

A case in point is Iraq itself. Some 200,000 Christians have left that country since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, it is about 175, 000. The more the Christian West comes across as a bully aggressor against Islam, the more these Christian minorities are susceptible to persecution and forced to flee to safer lands. Even the land of Jesus' birth has experienced a similar exodus of Christians, despite many good efforts on the part of the Church to keep the Christian faith alive there.

St. Francis meets the Sultan

As you probably recall, St. Francis of Assisi gave us a good model for seeking better relations with the Muslim community. In the year 1219, while Christian Crusaders were engaged in bloody combat with Muslim forces, St. Francis traveled to Damietta, Egypt, where he had a meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, leader of the Muslim forces. Convinced that violence and war was the wrong path, Francis determined to engage in peaceful dialogue with the Sultan and the whole Muslim world. When he gained entrance to the Sultan's camp, he fearlessly tried to persuade his Muslim host that Christ was the true path to salvation.

Although the Sultan was not about to change religions, he admired Francis' enthusiasm and courage and listened respectfully to him. Francis also showed a deep respect for his Muslim brother. The Sultan offered gifts to Francis and saw to it that he was given safe passage back to the Christian camp. As they parted, according to one account, the Sultan said to Francis, "Pray for me that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to him."

Franciscan scholars find evidence that Francis had truly entered into a spirit of dialogue with the Sultan and was personally open to the positive values present in the Muslim religion and culture. During his stay in Egypt and neighboring parts of the Muslim world, various aspects of the Islamic faith inspired Francis. For example, he could have hardly missed the importance Muslims give to prayer. Five times a day from the top of the minaret the muezzin—or prayer caller—publicly invites the faithful to prayer. Apparently, this impressed Francis profoundly. Sometime after Francis returned to Italy, he wrote his Letter to the Rulers of the People, in which he instructs them: "See to it that God is held in great reverence among your subjects; every evening, at a signal given by a herald or in some other way, praise and thanks should be given to the Lord God almighty by all the people."

Nor could Francis have missed the way Muslims prostrated themselves or bowed to the ground in reverence to the Almighty. In his Letter to a General Chapter, he writes, "At the sound of God's name you should fall to the ground and adore him with fear and reverence." The reason friars are sent all over the world, he adds, is to "bear witness...that there is no other Almighty God besides him," an expression amazingly similar to the Muslim's central formula of faith: "There is no god but God!"

Francis also seemed to pick up other aspects of the Muslim style of prayer, as Franciscan researchers have noted. Muslims, for example, have a keen sense of God's sublimity, majesty, goodness and transcendence over all creatures. They praise God with a beautiful litany of names (99 in all), often reciting them reverently on their prayer beads, names like, "The Gracious," The Kindly," The Beneficent," The High One," "The Merciful," "The Compassionate," "The Mighty," "The Loving."

This form of praise clearly seemed to have an impact on Francis' own style of prayer, especially in his later years. Take, for example, his litany-like "Praise of God" at Mt. La Verna: "You are holy, Lord, the only God.... You are strong, you are great, you are the Most High, you are almighty....You are Good, all Good, supreme Good....You are love, you are wisdom. You are humility, you are endurance. You are rest....You are our eternal life, great and wonderful Lord, God almighty, merciful Savior."

A modern-day risk-taker

St. Francis' spirit still speaks to us today! His small act of peacemaking with the Sultan did not seem to make even a tiny dent in the fierce hostilities between Christians and Muslims in the 13th Century. But the story continues to glow with meaning. And it keeps inspiring peacemakers to this very day. As I write this piece, I have a copy of a letter written by Jerry Zawada, OFM, in Baghdad on Feb. 28, 2003. He is with a Christian peace team in Iraq as a counter-witness to those insisting on a violent approach to solving the Iraqi situation. This Franciscan friar, based in Cedar Lake, Indiana, has obviously been inspired by Francis' example: On a "sunny, spring-like day in Baghdad," he writes that he is reading "over and over again" the story "of Francis's visit to the Sultan." He admits that on one level it is an "'impractical' gesture of reconciliation," and yet he adds: "Risk-taking is always present in life whether we do or don't respond to a calling." From the rest of the letter, it is clear that Father Jerry feels that his presence and that of the Christian peace team is an important sign of comfort and hope for ordinary Iraqi people, including Chaldean Christians, whose safety is at great risk because of the war.

Another sign that St. Francis' example of "impractical" peacemaking still speaks to human hearts today will be evident in "Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi," a TV docudrama on the life of St. Francis. In the docudrama, which I've had the opportunity to preview, Francis' visit with the Sultan and his role as peacemaker holds a prominent place. I recommend this one-hour film, which airs on the Hallmark channel on Palm Sunday, April 13, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. ET/PT. Based on the recent book by Donald Spoto, the film was shot on location in Umbria, Italy, where St. Francis lived and worked. For more information, visit the Reluctant Saint Web site.

I invite you—Internet readers around the planet—to join me in the following prayer.

Prayer for world peace

All loving and merciful God, God of Abraham—and of all those searching for you with a humble heart—protect the lives of all your children, especially those in harm's way because of the violence of war. Hear the cries of those most poor and vulnerable among us. We are all poor, indeed, because peace is so far from us, as a result of our common shortsightedness, frailty and susceptibility to bias and arrogance. But peace is within our reach—if we let ourselves be converted into instruments of your peace and healing love. Enlighten the darkness of our hearts that we may rely not so much on our own haughty wisdom and dark weapons of violence, but on your glorious light and overflowing love. Send us your help to heal our broken world. Amen.

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