This year 2019, marks 800 years since the encounter between our Seraphic Father St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth crusade at Damietta in Egypt. In 1219, Pope Honorius III sent Cardinal Pelagius of Albano to lead the Fifth Crusade. Al-Malik al-Kamil, attempted to negotiate peace, seeking to trade Damietta (a port city on the River Nile in northern Egypt) for Jerusalem, but Pelagius refused. During September 1219, Francis of Assisi arrived in the Crusader camp and sought permission to cross the battle lines to meet the Sultan at Damietta. In Francis’ revolutionary request, it is clear how different his convictions were to those who led the Fifth Crusade.
Upon meeting the Sultan, Francis surely greeted him with the Italian words: “Pace e bene!” (“Peace and all good”), while the Sultan may well have responded with the Islamic greeting: “Assalamu alaykum!” (“Peace be upon you!”). Both Men realized that they were for peace and wanted a peaceful end to the 5th crusade. The Sultan listened to Francis and offered him gifts, although the only one he accepted was a horn that he imagined could call friars to prayer.
We are told that “The Sultan, not only dismissed Francis in peace, with wonder and admiration for the man’s unusual qualities, but received him fully into his favor, gave him a safe-conduct by which he might go and come, with full permission to preach to his subjects, and an entreaty that he would frequently return to visit him.”
This incident is a model for solving conflicts in non-violent ways and for improving understanding between different peoples. In contemporary times the example of the Saint and the Sultan needs to be followed by reaching out in respectful dialogue with people of religions and cultures different to our own.
Following this legacy and example of St. Francis, the Capuchin friars in Africa started the Damietta Peace Initiative. This is a grassroots, pro-active, interfaith peace project centred upon non-violence, reconciliation and care for creation throughout Africa. The project promotes community-based small groups called Pan African Conciliation Teams or (PACTs). These groups build good relationships among people of diverse faiths, ethnicity, status, and Ideology. A distinct aspect of the DPI is promoting Interreligious dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
As we celebrate this anniversary we encourage all our Capuchin friars, the Franciscan family, our faithful and all people of good will, with the words of Fr. Mike Perry the Minister General of the Friars Minor, OFM, “To celebrate this anniversary as a moment when the light of the Gospel can open one’s heart to see the imago Dei in a person one regards with fear and distrust, or even worse, in a person one has been urged to hate”.
The challenge for us today as friars is to find ways in which Francis’ model can be transformed into a broadly based inter-religious dialogue between religious traditions or civilizations relevant to our situation today
Br. Benedict Ayodi OFMCap,