An Interview Frank Rega, author of St. Francis and the Conversion of the Muslims
By Michael Baggot
The relationship between Muslims and Christians received added attention this past Easter when Pope Benedict XVI publicly baptized Magdi Allam, the most prominent Muslim journalist in Italy. Allam knew that publicly renouncing his Islamic faith would bring attempts on his life from angered Muslims, but expressed conviction that his newfound faith would sustain him through any difficulties.
“You asked me whether I fear for my life, in the awareness that conversion to Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another and much more grave death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith.” Allam stated.
“And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon as he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims.”
Pope Benedict XVI’s action in St. Peter’s on Easter Vigil shows that the Catholic Church’s increased emphasis over the last decades on dialogue and mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims does not exclude efforts to bring Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ.
In December, Catholic author Frank M. Rega released Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims; With Concise Biography of the Saint, a book that has received much praise for its biographical portrait of the renowned saint and its highly pertinent focus on St. Francis’s relationship with Muslims of the time.
“If you’re tired of portraits of St. Francis as little more than a Birkenstock-clad hippie, a Peace Corps social worker, or an effeminate tofu-eating Green Party activist, read this book,” wrote Dr. Philip Blosser on his blog.
During the Fifth Crusade to Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi walked into a Muslim camp in order to preach Christianity and convert the sultan. Rega’s new book recounts St. Francis’s bold encounter with the sultan and other important events from the life of the man from Assisi some claim more closely imitated Jesus Christ than any other saint in history.
In line with its reporting on major cultural issues, LifeSiteNews interviewed Frank M. Rega about his new book and his perspective about the lessons St. Francis has for the world and Catholic-Muslim relations.
LifeSiteNews: Could you summarize the history of the Fifth Crusade?
Frank Rega: Michael, thank you and LifeSiteNews for inviting me to talk about my book on St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims. Your first question is very appropriate since it is important to set the stage for this historic encounter.
The Fifth Crusade was first called for by Pope Innocent III in 1215 at the Lateran Council. Innocent personally knew Francis and had approved his Rule in 1209 when Francis and his first followers went to Rome to seek Papal acceptance for his new Order. The crusade got underway in 1217 under Pope Honorius III. It lasted for four years, and was lost by the crusaders.
The goal was to first take Egypt before attempting to reach the Holy Land. In 1219 Francis was present in Egypt at the city of Damietta on the Nile, with some of his friars. That port city was eventually captured by the crusaders and held for over a year. But it was returned to the Muslims in 1221 after a crusader march on Cairo failed miserably, and the Christians gave up the crusade.
It was during a period of truce during the battle over Damietta in September 1219 that Francis preached to the Muslims, crossing over to the Muslim camp with Brother Illuminato, who was probably the interpreter.
LifeSiteNews: Why did St. Francis of Assisi support the Fifth Crusade?
Frank Rega: Francis understood that the Fifth Crusade was part of an ongoing just war in response to Muslim invasions of Christian lands, which included many attacks against Italian city-states all along the peninsula over the course of centuries. For example, in the year 846, Rome itself was sacked by 11,000 Muslims, who desecrated the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Further, the crusade was called for by the Holy Father, and it is well-known that Francis had perfect loyalty to the Catholic Church, and showed devout respect for priests and all the hierarchy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he felt the crusade was justified on spiritual grounds. As mentioned in the book, Francis told the Sultan “It is just that Christians invade the land you inhabit, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and alienate everyone you can from His worship.”
LifeSiteNews: What did St. Francis say and do when he entered the Muslim camp?
Frank Rega: It is important here to recognize the bravery of Francis. He preached to armed Muslims who a few days before had won a major skirmish at Damietta, killing about five thousand Christians. The Sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil was also the general of the Muslim army, and ruler of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Francis first obtained permission from the Papal Legate to cross over the lines during a period of temporary truce. When he reached Muslim territory he and Brother Illuminato were taken prisoner, beaten and put in chains by the sentries.
Here we have an image of St. Francis that is utterly opposed to the statues of a docile friar surrounded by birds and other animals – St. Francis beaten and in chains! He was fully prepared for martyrdom. Upon meeting the saint, al-Malik asked him if he was a messenger from the crusaders. Francis replied that he was indeed a messenger, but a messenger from God. He then proceeded to give witness to his love for Jesus, and said that he wished to save the souls of the Sultan and his men.
LifeSiteNews: How did the sultan and his followers react to St. Francis’s words and deeds?
Frank Rega: Initially the Sultan was taken aback by Francis’ boldness. After all, the Muslims had just defeated the Christians in a pitched battle, and now one of them dares to state that the Muslims must convert to Christianity. However, the love flowing from Francis began to move the Sultan, and according to one contemporary writer, “that cruel beast became sweetness himself.” However, the advisers to al-Malik, the imams, were not so impressed, and demanded that Francis and Illuminato should be beheaded in accordance with Islamic law.
Francis and his companion remained in the Muslim camp for many days, and parted on excellent terms with the Sultan. There is a story in the early Franciscan literature, described in my book, that al-Malik converted to the True Faith on his deathbed.
LifeSiteNews: Is a crusade against Islam needed today? If so, how should it be conducted?
Frank Rega: A traditional crusade by definition cannot be conducted today because it was a movement within Christendom to defend and counter-attack Muslim invasions of Christian lands. It was sponsored by the Church and relied on the support of Christian rulers and Kings. Without the backing of a strong Christendom, which no longer exists, a crusade as such would be impossible.
Furthermore, today an armed religious war would not be fruitful since the real battle is a “cold war” so to speak. It is a war of persuasion, conversion, and diplomatic dialog, since the Muslims have already launched their peaceful “invasion” of what was once Christian Europe. Of course I am only addressing the religious aspects here, and not the war on terrorism, which is in the secular domain.
LifeSiteNews: Do you think that Christian-Muslim dialogues have helped relations between the two groups or have they simply obscured the Christian mandate to go into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature?
Frank Rega: There is no doubt that ecumenism since Vatican II has diluted and weakened the efforts at evangelization. On the other hand, diplomatic dialog is quite necessary; for example, in negotiating to have the Saudi’s allow Catholic worship and churches in their nation. But the pendulum is swinging towards the more traditional view of converting unbelievers rather than only dialoging for the sake of mutual understanding. One indication of the paradigm shift is the very public reception of Magdi Christiano Allam into the Church by the Holy Father himself.
Also, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document last December reminding Catholics that ecumenical efforts should not cause us to neglect the gospel mandate to seek the conversion of others to Christ. This must be accomplished without coercion, but rather by a dialog of conversion. This is what Francis did in his conversations with the Sultan.
The problem arises with a certain philosophy of ecumenism that seeks some type of indefinite mutual coexistence of differing religions, or worse yet, that would strive for a for “pan-religion” by the merging of religious traditions. This approach is a denial that the Catholic Religion is the one true faith founded by Jesus Christ.
LifeSiteNews: What can St. Francis teach Christians of today about relating to Muslims?
Frank Rega: First, I think it is important to realize that St. Francis did not openly attack the Muslim religion or Mohammed. He was not armed with a copy of the Koran in one hand and the Catholic Catechism in the other. In fact there is no indication that he ever instructed his friars who undertook such a mission to study the Koran or the tenets of Islam. His goal was to carry to the unbelievers the very presence of Christ, and the essence of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness and salvation.
This brings up a second point, the necessity to be strong in the basics of our Faith. One cannot relate as a Catholic to another religion while being hesitant, for example, about the truth of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter.
Finally, Francis shows us that we must keep it simple. Simplicity was one of the hallmarks of his personality and of his approach to Christianity. Spiritual strength flows from the simple understanding and belief that Jesus is God, that he founded a Church to transmit the grace of salvation in His Name, and that Church is the Roman Catholic Church.