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St. Francis and Christian-Muslim Relations

Interview With Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Indiana, MARCH 30, 2006 (Zenit) - In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi ventured into Muslim territory to visit the caliph of Egypt and preach the Gospel.

His example may provide a good role model for modern interreligious dialogue today, according to one scholar.

Lawrence Cunningham is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and the author of "Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life".

He shared with us how St. Francis (c. 1181-1226) considered himself to be a spiritual crusader, and how his peaceful and truthful approach helped in his outreach to Muslims.

Q: How did the average Christian view Islam and Muslims during St. Francis' time? Where might St. Francis have learned about Islam?

Cunningham: Generally, Muslims were considered to be a huge external enemy, fueled by rhetoric coming from the Crusade that began at the end of the 11th century.

People who were aware of what was going on in the world -- excluding large slices of peasantry -- knew about Muslims through the stories men brought back from fighting in the Crusades. That's probably how Francis learned about them.

The idea of converting Muslims seemed to be in the air for many saints. Francis tried to go to Morocco once, but he became ill when he got to Spain. Teresa of Avila also shared the common impulse; as a child she and her brother wanted to go to the Muslim lands to be martyrs.

St. Anthony of Padua was taken by the bravery of Franciscan friars martyred in Morocco; he wanted to be a Franciscan and go to North Africa because of their sacrifice. Anthony eventually ended up in Sicily where there was a huge Islamic influence.

Q: Did St. Francis view Muslims as Christian heretics or infidels? What was his understanding of Islam in the scheme of Providence?

Cunningham: We don't know for certain what St. Francis thought of Muslims. We have very little in the form of writing from him and most is not terribly theological.

My educated guess is that Francis thought Muslims, like the Jews, needed to be converted to Christianity.

Also, any theologian in Francis' time that knew anything about Muslims would know the Koran explicitly denies the doctrine of the Trinity; "ipso facto," that makes them heretical.

If you could extrapolate from a famous writer a few generations later, Dante Alighieri, he places Mohammed in the circle of hell with the schismatics that broke the unity of the church. Mohammed's punishment was to be chained to the floor with his body split lengthwise because he split the Church. The punishment fit the crime.

Q: What was the relationship between St. Francis' trips to the Holy Land and Egypt, and the Crusades? Did he see himself as a different type of Crusader, or was he in opposition to the Crusades?

Cunningham: When Francis converts to the evangelical life -- when he strips his clothes in front of Bishop Guido and dons a peasant's robe -- he chalks a cross on his back; in that sense becomes a "cross bearer," literally, a Crusader.

Earlier in his life Francis had given up the idea of being a solider, so later he became a spiritual crusader -- a warrior without arms. He saw himself and his friars as Knights of the Round Table fighting a spiritual crusade.

We do know that he made it to Damietta in Egypt where there were Crusaders fighting Muslims. He and Brother Pacifico crossed the Crusader lines to visit and have an audience with the caliph.

My book mentions an Arabic inscription in stone in a Cairo museum that recounts the caliph spoke to Western holy men. You also can see in Assisi a gift from the caliph to Francis: a piece of ivory horn on a gold stand.

Legend embroiders their conversation, saying that Francis was willing to undergo trial by fire to prove the truth of Christianity to the caliph, and the caliph became a secret Christian. We don't know if any of that is true.

The caliph did receive him kindly; he may have been a Sufi -- a Muslim mystic -- who want to identify mystically with the love of Allah. Thus, the caliph may have had an instinctual sympathy for Francis, whom he probably saw as a holy man.

Francis wasn't a 20th-century ecumenist -- he probably tried to convert the caliph. We don't know the character of the conversation. We do know that he went peacefully in an attempt to engage the caliph face to face and possibly stop the killing and fighting.

Francis certainly wanted his own friars to not engage in violence and warfare. He probably was a realist and knew it would happen, but he didn't want it that way.

One interesting aspect about Francis that doesn't get much attention is that during his years of active ministry one of the most important things he did was go into towns in Italy and stop civil strife. An eyewitness account of a student in Bologna reports he saw Francis preaching about angels and demons in the town square and reconciled warring families.

He did that in Assisi and Arezzo and many other towns. It's an element of his ministry that has not been highlighted enough.

Q: St. Francis is often declared as a model of interreligious dialogue, yet he attempted to convert the caliph of Egypt and the other Muslims he encountered to the Catholic faith. In what ways does St. Francis provide a model for Christian-Muslim dialogue?

Cunningham: I would say there's been a lot of water under the historical bridge. But I think that Francis is a model in the sense he comes nonviolently, nonbelligerently and honestly.

I think interreligious dialogue can only function effectively if people say truthfully and nonbelligerently what they believe and why.

Also, Francis comes as a genuine contemplative; he speaks not only from intellectual knowledge but deep spiritual experience. I think that's a good model for dialogue with believers of any religious tradition.

Q: During St. Francis' life, the Franciscans sent missionaries to Islamic lands. Can you describe the nature of their missions?

Cunningham: The most conspicuous thing Francis did, after he met with the caliph, was go to the Holy Land; there have been Franciscan friars there ever since. All the major Christian shrines today -- from Judea to the Galilee -- are all manned by the Franciscans.

The Franciscans serve three functions there: maintain shrines, be hospitable to pilgrims and work with Catholic peoples in the Holy Land.

If you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, next to it is the parish church of St. Catherine for the Latin-rite Catholics, where there are Franciscans.

Q: Did St. Francis believe that martyrdom would be the most likely outcome of his and his brothers' missionary work? Was he disappointed by this?

Cunningham: We don't know if he was disappointed; but we know he knew that if you went to North Africa, there was a chance you would die if you evangelized.

There's a fair history of his friars being martyred, besides the five in Morocco. The friars were aggressive missionaries; after Francis' time, they made their way to China, to the court of the Mongols and to Armenia.

Q: Does the Franciscan order continue to live its tradition of evangelizing Muslims?

Cunningham: They certainly have continued the tradition of living in Muslim lands; they are still located in North Africa and the Holy Land. They have to be very careful. For a Muslim to convert in some strongholds is to invite the death penalty.

I think the Franciscan outreach to Muslims today is an outreach of presence.

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