Saint Francis of Assisi, early missionary to the Muslim world

Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, was born at Assisi in Umbria, in 1181 or 1182. He died there on 3 October, 1226. Many of the stories that surround the life of St. Francis say that he had a great love for animals and the environment. Therefore October 4, Saint Francis' feast day, is celebrated as World Animal Day. Less known is that Francis visited Egypt and attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world. 
This had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as "Custodians of the Holy Land" on behalf of the Catholic Church. 

Francis of Assisi was a contemporary of the crusading Knights Templar, which at the time of his life was a metaphor of the novea militiae. At the time of Francis' youth the crusading forces had just lost Jerusalem to the muslim forces of Saladin (October 1187). This triggered the Third Crusade (1187-1192), led by Richard the Lionheart, who, instead of retaking Jerusalem, negotiated a treaty with Saladin. The treaty allowed mecrhants to trade and unarmed Christian pilgrims to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, while it remained under Muslim control.

Although the son of a wealthy merchant, Francis of Assisi's family encouraged him to seek his fortune as a soldier. Handsome, gallant and courteous, he soon became a favorite among the nobles of Assisi. He fought in many battles as a knight of Count Walter of Brienne. Yet, even during this stage of his life, Francis had an uncommon sympathy for the poor and the meek. While still in his twenties, this knight Francis was inspired by a holy vision to abandon his worldly life for one of religious contemplation. He relinquished his inheritance and entered the cloth. In 1208, he founded the Franciscan Order. In the spring of 1219, Francis journeyed to the Holy Land and was present at the siege of Damietta.

Pope Innocent III declared a new crusade to begin commence in 1217. The majority of the crusaders came from Germany, Flanders, and Frisia, along with a large army from Hungary. The crusaders laid seige to Damietta in Egypt on May 27, 1218. They began their siege and despite resistance from the unprepared sultan Al-Adil, the tower outside the city was taken on August 25. However, the Franch army could not gain Damietta itself. During the continuing siege in the ensuing months diseases killed many of the crusaders. The local Muslim commander Al-Adil also died and was succeeded by Sultan Ayyubid Al-Kamil. Meanwhile, Pope Honorius III sent Pelagius of Albano to lead the crusade in 1219. Sultan Al-Kamil tried to negotiate peace with the crusaders. He offered to trade Damietta for Jerusalem, but Pelagius would not accept these offers. After hearing this Count William I of Holland left the crusade and sailed home.

In August or September 1219, Francis of Assisi arrived in the crusader camp. He gave a sermon to the crusading army, including the Knights Templar contingent. The ongoing siege of the city of Damietta and the negotiations thereon Francis sought an opportunity to meet the Sultan Al-Kamil face to face in an attempt to convert him to the Christian faith. Francis sought permission to go to the Sultan from the Papal Legate who was hesitant to grant permission since Al-Kamil had reportedly stated that "anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be awarded with Byzantine gold pieces". Eventually when confronted with the insistence and persistence of Francis, the Papal legate allowed Francis and one companion, Brother Illuminato, to go into the Muslim camp.

Early documents, which may have a high myth character, all agree that upon arrival Francis and Illuminato were treated very roughly by the Muslim soldiers. One account states that they were insulted and beaten yet showed no fear even when threatened with torture and death. They kept repeating to their captors the word for "SULTAN" (which lack of other language seems odd because at the time fluency in Arab was common in crusader circles) and were eventually dragged before him. Francis and Illuminato informed the Sultan that they were messengers sent from God. An early writing purports to contain the essence of their first words to the Sultan: "If you do not wish to believe we will commend your soul to God because we declare that if you die while holding to your law you will be lost; God will not accept your soul. For this reason we have come to you." They added that they would demonstrate the truth of Christianity to al-Kamil and his imams.

The Sultan was captivated by the sincerity of the men's concern for his eternal salvation. Al-Kamil willingly listened to Francis and permitted them great liberty in their preaching. The Sultan told his imams that beheading Francis and Illuminato would be an unjust recompense for their efforts, since they had arrived with the praiseworthy intention of seeking his personal salvation. He said to Francis: "I am going to go counter to what my religious advisors demand and will not cut off your heads. You have risked your own lives in order to save my soul." The Franciscans were the guests of the Sultan for many days. During that time the Sultan made certain that the men's wounds were taken care of. They left without converting the Sultan, but some sources insist that in 1238 Al-Kamil was baptised on his deathbed.

In the meantime, by November 5, 1219, the crusaders had worn out the sultan's forces, and were finally able to occupy the city of Damietta itself. The sultan withdrew to al-Mansourah, a fortress further up the Nile. After this there was little action until 1221, when al-Kamil offered peace again, but was again refused. The Crusaders marched out towards Cairo, but al-Kamil simply opened the dams and allowed the Nile to flood, and finally the Crusaders accepted an eight-year peace. Al-Kamil retook Damietta in September 1221.

In the following years there was a power struggle between Al-Kamil and his brother al-Mu'azzam, and al-Kamil was willing to accept a peace with emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II, who was planning the Sixth Crusade. Al-Mu'azzam died in 1227, eliminating the need for a peace, but Frederick had already arrived. After al-Mu'azzam's death, al-Kamil and his other brother al-Ashraf Khalil negotiated a treaty giving all of Palestine (including Transjordan) to al-Kamil and Syria to al-Ashraf. In February 1229 al-Kamil negotiated a ten-year peace with Frederick II and returned Jerusalem and other holy sites to the Crusader kingdom.

The treaty of 1229 is unique in the history of the Crusades. By diplomacy alone and without major military confrontation, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a corridor running to the sea were ceded to the kingdom of Jerusalem. Exception was made for the Temple area, the Dome of the Rock, and the Aqsa Mosque, which the Muslims retained. Moreover, all current Muslim residents of the city would retain their homes and property. They would also have their own city officials to administer a separate justice system and safeguard their religious interests. The walls of Jerusalem, which had already been destroyed, were not rebuilt, and the peace was to last for 10 years.

Perhaps this remarkable peace was a late offspring of the visit of Francis to Al-Kamil in 1219.

Sources main source text and several pages on Wikipedia. Top illustration shows Legend of St. Francis, Sermon to the Birds, upper Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, source Wikipedia; Lower illustration shows St. Francis before the Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt witnessing the trial by fire  (wall fresco, Giotto.), source Wikipedia

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