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In the midst of the Crusades, the Sultan of Egypt Malek al-Kamil (nephew of Saladin) declared that anyone who delivered him the head of a Christian would be rewarded with a Byzantine gold piece. Fighting had been fierce and the Sultan wanted to put a definitive end to the conflict. By August 1219 his armies succeeded in defending the stronghold of Damietta, killing about 5,000 crusaders in the process.
Then came St. Francis of Assisi.
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St. Francis and Br. Illuminatus boldly went across the battle lines unarmed and were quickly captured by the Sultan’s army and badly beaten. However, the soldiers spared their lives and brought them before the Sultan.
St. Bonaventure described the encounter, writing, “The sultan asked them by whom and why and in what capacity they had been sent, and how they got there; but Francis replied that they had been sent by God, not by men, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and proclaim the truth of the Gospel message. When the sultan saw his enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him.” It is said that Francis greeted the Sultan with the greeting, “May the Lord give you peace,” similar to the traditional Muslim greeting of, “Assalam o alaikum” or “Peace be upon you.” This surprised the Sultan who was quickly enraptured by Francis’ holiness.
Francis proceeded to preach the Gospel to the Sultan in such a way that al-Kamil was not offended and did not end Francis’ life immediately for blasphemy. The Sultan could see the love that flowed from Francis and was astonished by his boldness. They spoke together of the spiritual life and reflected on each other’s traditions.
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The two friars stayed in the Muslim camp for several days and departed on peaceful terms. Before they left al-Kamil wanted to give Francis lavish gifts, but Francis refused according to his vow of poverty. This too left al-Kamil speechless as he was not aware of a man who refused earthly honors. Francis eventually accepted the single gift of an ivory horn that is currently on display in Assisi.
The encounter changed al-Kamil, who gave safe passage to St. Francis and his companions and began to treat Christian prisoners of war with surprising kindness. The Sultan proceeded to negotiate for peace with the crusaders, asking them to leave Egypt, but the efforts ultimately failed. By 1221 al-Kamil offered peace again, which was refused, and he consequently opened the floodgates of the Nile to further deter them. The crusaders then agreed to an 8-year peace agreement.
This historic event recently inspired a documentary-drama called “The Sultan and the Saint,” where the story of St. Francis’ encounter is dramatized. It features the narration of Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons and commentary by various historians and authors. Screenings of the movie are being organized across the country, with the goal of the project to “attract and encourage an audience of many different backgrounds, particularly Muslims and Christians, to watch the film together in a spirit of dialogue, just as Saint Francis and Sultan al-Kamil engaged and shared peacefully and respectfully.”
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