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Celebrating 800 Years of Francis and the Sultan

Throughout the past year, events have been held around the world to commemorate the historic encounter of 800 years ago, the unlikely meeting in 1219 of two men of strong faith, considered polar opposites – St. Francis of Assisi, the poor and humble Italian Catholic friar, and Sultan of Egypt al-Malik al-Kamil, the ruler of the Ayyubid Sultanate centered in Egypt. It was an encounter of peace between a Christian and Muslim in the midst of the bloody Fifth Crusades.  Descriptions of many of these commemorative events can be found on the website of the Order of Friars Minor. The most recent event occurred in September, when a group of scholars and experts gathered in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the significance of the meeting between the sultan and the saint.

Participants in the recent commemoration at an interfaith sema. (Photo courtesy of Roberto Astuto)

A simple life of poverty, love for all creation, and the annual blessing of the animals are among the most celebrated associations with the life of St. Francis of Assisi. But perhaps his most significant achievement – at least in the eyes of religious scholars and historians – was the blueprint for Catholic-Muslim dialogue that he co-created 800 years ago with the ruler of the Muslim world.

Michael talks with participants of the meeting in Istanbul about the 1219 encounter of St. Francis with the Sultan. (Photo courtesy of Roberto Astuto)

Last month, the OFM Special Commission for Dialog with Islam commemorated the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’s peaceful encounter in 1219 with the Sultan of Egypt al-Malik al-Kamil with a weeklong symposium in Istanbul that featured a comprehensive and discerning discussion on how the historic event can inspire present-day inter-religious discourse.

“Eight hundred years later, the example set by St. Francis and the Sultan still has enormous significance for a world which sadly remains divided along religious, ethnic and national lines,” said Michael Calabria, OFM, chairman of the Commission for Dialog with Islam, and who also serves as a professor and director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University. “Franciscan communities worldwide have different histories and experiences of Christian-Muslim relations, but we all agree that the only way forward is the peaceful and respectful examples given to us by Francis and the Sultan.”

The recent event in Turkey, held from Sept. 9 to 15 and organized by Michael, assembled scholars, educators and religious who have studied Francis’s encounter with the sultan during the Fifth Crusade, and who are engaged in building relationships with Muslims – including Franciscan sisters, friars and other religious from Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, the Philippines, Italy, France, Spain, and the United States.

Significance of Encounter
The week began with a viewing of the 2017 film “The Sultan and the Saint,” which was followed by a panel discussion led by Michael Calabria, Michael Cusato, OFM, and Sr. Kathy Warren, OSF – all of whom served as consultants to the movie. Victor Edwin, SJ, spoke about response to the film by young people within the diverse religious communities of India.

Michael Calabria inside St. Maria Draperis Church where the interfaith prayer service took place. (Photo courtesy of Roberto Astuto)

Franciscan friar and scholar of the Francis-Sultan encounter Gwenolé Jeusset gave a presentation on the various Franciscan sources of the encounter. Michael Cusato presented a summary of his latest work, “The Loneliness of Francis of Assisi: The Reception by the Franciscan Order of the Encounter of Francis with the Sultan in the First Half of the 13th Century” (Muslim World, March 2019). Journalist Paul Moses, the author of The Saint and the Sultan, presented his case for the veracity of the encounter.

While in Istanbul, the group members toured historic Christian and Ottoman Muslim sites including Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the mosques of Suleyman I and his daughter Mihrimah, the Byzantine Chora Church, and the Kalenderhane – the latter which served as the friars’ church during the Latin occupation of Constantinople.

The weeklong gathering culminated with an inter-religious prayer service held at St. Maria Draperis Church with Muslim Sheikh Nail Dede Kesova and Mevlevi Sufis. In addition to scripture readings and hymns from the Christian tradition, the service included the music of the Mevlevis and a worship ceremony known as Sema, which involves the recitation of devotional Islamic prayer and whirling to facilitate an experience of union with the Divine.

The members of the Special Commission are working on a statement to summarize their week of discernment on the inspiration of the Francis-Sultan encounter on Christian-Muslim relations. In addition to Michael Calabria, other members of the Commission include Manuel Corullón of Morocco, Ferdinand Mercado of the Philippines, and Jamil Albert of Pakistan.

Resources
In connection with the 800th anniversary, the OFM Special Commission for Dialog with Islam also prepared an e-book titled “St. Francis and the Sultan, 1219-2019: A Commemorative Booklet.” Designed to serve as a resource guide, this e-book is prefaced with letters from Pope Francis and Order of Friars Minor Minister General Michael Perry, OFM.

The “St. Francis and the Sultan, 1219-2019: A Commemorative Booklet” e-book can be viewed online or downloaded for offline viewing.

The e-book contains an abundance of resource materials including: articles on the Sultan and St. Francis by Michael Calabria and Michael Cusato; an article on inter-religious dialogue from the Muslim perspective by Islamic scholar Irfan Omar; discussions about artistic interpretations and representations of the encounter in both painting and film; excerpts from Church and Franciscan documents on inter-religious dialogue; a sample interfaith prayer service, and suggested reading. It is available in English, Italian, and Spanish.

Also in connection with the 800th anniversary, the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University published a special issue of its magazine, Nūr (Spring 2018) that focuses on the Francis-Sultan encounter.

Michael Calabria has served as director of the center since its establishment in 2015.

As Fr. Michael Perry stated in a letter he released to the Order of Friars Minor at the start of the year’s events: “We today celebrate what no one at that moment could have foreseen: that a Spirit-filled man with nothing of his own crossed the battle lines unarmed to request a meeting with the Sultan, enjoyed an extended period of hospitality with the Muslim leader, and emerged from the visit to reflect anew on the mission of the Friars Minor. Francis returned safely to his homeland profoundly moved by the encounter and crafted a new and creative vision for his brothers about how they could go among Muslims, about the things Friars could do and say “that would please God.” The anniversary of Francis’s encounter with al-Malik al-Kamil in Damietta in 1219 beckons us to ask again what deeds and words, amid the pluralism and complexity of the world today, would be pleasing to God.”

— Research for this article was provided by Michael Calabria and Paul Moses, author of the book The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace,” published in 2009. Earlier this year, Michael Calabria joined other Franciscans in speaking out about the attacks on mosques in New Zealand.

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