The year 2019 marks 800 years on the historic meeting between St Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil Muhammad al-Ayyubi, in the midst of the conflict of the 13th century Fifth Crusade.
Fr Milad Shehata, head of the Franciscan Cultural Centre for Coptic Studies, told Watani that a mega celebration would be held in Cairo to honour the occasion. It started on 2 October 2017, and lasts throughout a year and half, until 2019, he said. “The celebration is designed to highlight the most prominent figures of Muslim-Christian dialogue over time, St Francis being the epic symbol of that dialogue,” Fr Milad noted.
Celebrating the historic meeting
The celebration took off with an event on 2 October at the Nile hall of the Catholic Centre of Cinema in the Church of St Joseph in Cairo. A seminar will next be held jointly by the Franciscan monks in Cairo and Cairo University, which will feature a lecture by Muhammad al-Khashd, President of Cairo University, and another by Franciscan Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, representative of the Vatican for Eastern Churches and head of Franciscan Order in Rome.
“Another celebration is scheduled for March 2018 at Amr Ibn al-Aas mosque in Dumyat, Damietta, on the northern tip of the eastern branch of the Nile Delta,” Fr Milad told Watani. Dumyat is the town in which the meeting of St Francis and Sultan al-Kamil took place. “We are already getting ready for this celebration which will include guests from outside Egypt. We filmed a documentary there, in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities sector there. We are in the process of finalising the official permits which we need, after which we will send out our invitations and publish the final programme for the celebration.
“We will also translate into Arabic books which detail the meeting and dialogue that took place between St Francis and Sultan al-Kamil, to spread the message of peace among Arabic-language speakers and readers.”
Footsteps of peace
Attending the recent Cairo event were Anba Ibrahim Ishaq, Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church; the new Italian Ambassador to Egypt, Giampaolo Cantini; Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt Archbishop Bruno Mozaro; Coptic Catholic Bishop Yuhanna Qolta; Catholic Bishop of the Latin rite in Egypt, Adel Zaki; Fr Ibrahim Faltas of the Custody of the Holy Land; Anba Antonius Aziz Bishop of east Giza; and Anba Makary Bishop of south Shubra as representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Among attendants as well were General Muhammad Ayman, deputy of Cairo governor; Muhammad Ahmed Abdel-Latif assistant of Antiquities Minister; a number of MPs; Dr Lo’ai Mahmoud head of the Coptic Studies Institute in Abbassiya; as well as a number of Franciscan monks.
In his speech, the new Italian Ambassador expressed his happiness that his term in Cairo would coincide with this remarkable event. “I came to Egypt pursuing the footsteps of St Francis; conveying a message of peace,” he noted, and said that such a celebration “lays upon our shoulders the responsibility of calling for peace just as Pope Francis, who adopted the name of St Francis, did when he paid a visit to Egypt last April 2017.”
Dr Abdel-Latif described Egypt as the land of Heavenly religions, the land that hosted Moses as a child, and was blessed with the Holy Family’s refuge.”
Speeches were followed by chanting a number of hymns in different languages by St Joseph choir. Then it was time for screening a 30-minute documentary on the history of Franciscan Order in Egypt.
The celebration closed with the National anthem, and handing shields of honour to guests. Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq consecrated an icon painted by Nabil Youssef Bushra, of St Francis talking to Sultan al-Kamil.
Man of peace in times of war
St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was a man of peace. He was the privileged son of a wealthy Italian merchant but gave up his possessions and adopted a life of peace, poverty, compassion and nonviolence.
In a moment of conversion, while praying on his knees before a crucifix in 1205, Jesus spoke to him from the image on the cross: “Francis! go, repair my house which is falling completely to ruin.” Francis saw this as a request to transform the entire Christian Church. He was reborn as a peacemaker and was convinced that God wanted him to bring the world a message of peace.
He adopted the signature greeting “May the Lord give you peace” and constantly opposed warfare, arrogance and the violent culture of his day.
In 1217, armies from all across Europe gathered for the Fifth Crusade and headed for Egypt. The Muslim and Christian armies camped across the Nile. War raged on over two years, and thousands were killed on both sides.
Sultan al-Kamil, ruler of Egypt and a nephew of the great Kurd warrior Saladin, repeatedly tried to negotiate peace by returning Jerusalem to the Crusaders but the pope rejected the offer each time.
In Italy, Francis gathered his community of brothers. He heard of the terrible war and, yearning to be a peacemaker in the name of Christ, he took a few brothers with him in June 1219 and sailed to the war zone.
Upon reaching the banks of the Nile, Francis was deeply grieved to see the horrific sight of casualties of war on both sides. He retreated into deep prayers and contemplation and began to preach vigorously against the war, but no one listened to him.
Finally, Francis decided that he would act, and he and brother Illuminato would venture out to meet the Muslims in their own camp. Francis understood the risks; death or imprisonment were the likely outcomes of his plan to cross the enemy lines during wartime. But this did not dissuade him.
At Dumyat, at the height of the Crusade war, Francis and a companion crossed no man’s land between the two opposing armies, from the Christian camp to the Sultan’s camp. He spent days there meeting and discussing with the Sultan and his court. Sultan al-Kamil Muhammad al-Ayyubi was inclined towards a moderate Islamic Sufism, so when a monk came in speaking of peace, love, end of wars, coexistence and rapprochement, he listened intently. This remarkable encounter, and the commitment to peace of the two individuals involved, changed the relationship between Muslims and Christians for the better. And even though war did not end, Francis’s words fell on sympathetic ears.
St Francis’s visit to Egypt and attempted Rapprochement with the Muslim World had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death. After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who in early 14th century would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land, and later be recognised as Custodian of the Holy Land, on behalf of the Catholic Church.