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Pope Francis’ Fake Mission to the Muslim World

Vatican News recently announced Pope Francis’ upcoming “Apostolic Journey to Morocco, whose theme is hope.” Before spending March 30-31 in Morocco, Francis is also scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates. “Pope Francis will meet the leader of Moroccan Muslims,” Vatican News continues, “800 years after the meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil of Egypt.”

Francis has been even more vocal in drawing continuity between himself and his namesake, Francis of Assisi. In a recent address, he said that his visits to the two Muslim nations “represent two important opportunities to advance interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding between the followers of both religions, in this year that marks the eight-hundredth anniversary of the historic meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil.”

What exactly was “historic” about this meeting? And how does it relate to Pope Francis’ efforts “to advance interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding”? Exploring these questions offers useful lessons, including on past and present approaches to Islam.

Before proceeding, it should be understood that Pope Francis often portrays himself as walking in the footsteps of his chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi -- “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” as Jorge Mario Bergoglio explained in 2013 when he became pope concerning why he had adopted the name of Francis.

As for what the pope is characterizing as a “historic meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil,” here is the story: After centuries of Islamic invasions that saw the conquest of at least two-thirds of Christian territory -- as documented in my recent Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West -- Europeans finally began to push back via the Crusades in the late 11th Century.

In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and a fellow companion sought to do their part by traveling to the Middle East, where they sought audience with Sultan al-Kāmil. They went despite al-Kāmil’s vow that “anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be awarded with a Byzantine gold piece,” to quote from St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, a good primer on the topic by Frank M. Rega (a Franciscan).

St. Francis’ contemporaries also warned him that Muslims “were a mean people who thirst for Christian blood and attempt even the most brazen atrocities.” The determined men continued their journey, only to experience the inevitable:

The early documents are unanimous in agreeing that the two Franciscans were subjected to rough treatment upon crossing Muslim territory. The men of God were seized in a violent manner by the sentries, assaulted, and bound in chains. Celano reports that Francis “was captured by the Sultan’s soldiers, was insulted and beaten” yet showed no fear even when threatened with torture and death.