The die has been cast! President Bush has decided
to invade Iraq and remove the regime of Saddam Husseindespite
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 understandingand
builders of a global human family as the Spirit inspires each of
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.
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.
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
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 muezzinor prayer callerpublicly 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,"
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."
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 youInternet readers around the
planetto join me in the following prayer.
All loving and merciful God, God of Abrahamand
of all those searching for you with a humble heartprotect
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 reachif
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.