Francis’ Mission in the Moslem World
It was Francis who confronted the infidels with hopes to convert them to the last man.
To Francis and some of his followers the idea of converting the Saracens, must have appeared fantastic. The Saracens, who up to then, had thought only of cutting the throats of Christians. So, the challenge and martyrdom to Francis and some of his followers was inviting. It is true that the Moors asked only to do likewise; for, quite apart from an eternal reward, every Moslem who brought a Christian head to the Sultan received a golden bezant from him.
Cardinal Pelagio, who now arrived in Damietta with reinforcements, was far from encouraging Francis in his project, if not actually forbidding the undertaking. He declined all personal responsibility, charging Francis not to compromise, by that means, the Christian name and Christian interests.
The Saint, nevertheless, took Brother Illuminato with him and set out toward the enemy line, singing, “Though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” To comfort his less reassured companion, Francis showed him two ewes peacefully grazing in their perilous spot. “Courage, Brother!” he cried joyously. “Put your trust in Him who sends us forth like sheep in the midst of wolves.” However, the Saracens appeared, jumped on the two religious, and began to beat them. “Soldan! Soldan!” shouted Francis as long as he was able. The soldiers thought that they were dealing with envoys and brought them in chains to their camp. Francis explained in French that he desired to see the Sultan and convert him to the Gospel.
Had he said this anywhere else, it would have meant instant death; but the court of Al-Malik al-Kamil included skeptics who liked to discuss the respective merits of the Koran and the Gospel, and who likewise were chivalrous in their deportment.
The Sultan also doubtless saw in the arrival of the Friars Minor an opportunity for diversion and ordered the evangelizers to be shown in. It is said that in order to cause them embarrassment, he had a carpet strewn with crosses laid down in the room in front of him. “If they walk on it,” he said, “I will accuse them of insulting their God. If they refuse, I will reproach them for not wishing to approach me and of insulting me.”
Francis walked unhesitatingly over the carpet, and as the prince observed that he was trampling the Christian cross underfoot, the Saint replied: “You must know that there were several crosses on Calvary, the cross of Christ and those of the two thieves, the first is ours, which we adore. As for the others, we gladly leave them to you, and have no scruples about treading on them, whenever it pleases you to strew them on the ground.”
Al-Malik al-Kamil soon conceived a warm friendship for the Poverello and invited him to stay with him. “I would do so gladly,” replied the Saint, “if you would consent to become converted to Christ together with your people.” And he even offered, writes St. Bonaventure, “to undergo the ordeal by fire in his presence.”
“Let a great furnace be lit,” said he. “Your priests and I will enter it; and you shall judge by what you see which of our two religions is the holiest and truest.”
“I greatly fear that my priest will refuse to accompany you into the furnace,” observed the Sultan.
And indeed, at the simple announcement of this proposal, the venerable dean of that priestly group hastily disappeared. “Since that is the way things are,” said Francis, “I will enter the fire alone. If I perish, you must lay it to my sins. But if God’s power protects me, do you promise to acknowledge Christ as the true God and Savior?”
The Sultan alleged the impossibility of his changing his religion without alienating his people. But as his desire to keep this charming messenger at his court was as strong as ever, he offered him rich presents. These were, as we may well imagine, refused. “Take them at least to give to the poor.” he urged. But Francis accepted, it appears, only a horn which later on he used to summon people when he was about to preach.
He departed very sad as soon as he perceived the uselessness of his efforts. The Sultan had him conducted in state back to the Christian camp. “Remember me in your prayers,” he begged as Francis left, “and may God, by your intercession, reveal to me which belief is more pleasing to Him.”
Syria, at this period, was partly Christian and partly Moslem. Thanks to a permit received from Conradin, Sultan of Damascus and brother of Al-Malik al-Kamil, Francis could travel anywhere in the country without paying tribute. He made use of this privilege, says Angelo Clareno, to visit the Holy Places. How we would like to have a contemporary account of those who saw him or accompanied him to Palestine – showing us the Little Poor Man celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem, weeping on Good Friday at Gethsemani and Calvary, and communicating on Easter morning at the Holy Sepulchre. But, unfortunately, the records are silent about these months in the life of St. Francis.
Taken from the book, St. Francis of Assisi. A Biography by Omer Englebert