‘Terrible deeds in the name of Christ’
It is always timely to write about the Crusades because in any public issue involving the Catholic Church, her opponents cite the Crusades to prove that she is wrong, regardless of what the issue is. In fact, accusations against Catholics and other Christians based on the Crusades sometimes arise unprovoked. For example, during the recent National Prayer Breakfast in the United States, US President Barack Obama, after mentioning the atrocities committed by Isis and other Islamo-fascists, said, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
The commission of “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” is indefensible. But were the Crusades really “terrible deeds in the name of Christ”? (For now, I will lay aside the Inquisition as a topic for another essay.)
The popular notion perpetuated by movies like “Kingdom of Heaven” is that the Crusades were all about Christians invading Muslim lands, forcing Muslims to convert to Christianity, and slaughtering them if they refuse. Other sources tell a more complex story, however.
Many books on the Crusades and on Catholic Church history in general have been published in recent years, such as “The Concise History of the Crusades” by Thomas Madden; “Seven Lies About Catholic History” and “Islam at the Gates,” both by Diane Moczar; and “The Templars: Knights of Christ” and “The Crusaders,” both by Regine Pernoud. All three authors are historians.
The consensus among these sources is that the Crusades were defensive wars, in reaction to aggressive expansionism in the name of Islam. In the seventh century, the Arabs conquered large parts of the southern Byzantine Empire, including Syria, the Holy Land and Egypt. In these conquered territories, the conquerors exacted a special poll tax from their Christian subjects, treated them as an inferior class known as the dhimmi, imposed harsh conditions on them, and destroyed their churches. By the 11th century, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher had been destroyed, and Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land massacred. Eventually, parts of Byzantium fell to Muslim occupation, prompting the Byzantine emperor to appeal to Pope Urban for military aid for Christians of the East.
Thus, the Crusades were born, whose objective was the defense of Christians in the East which included the Holy Land. The first Crusade liberated the Holy Land from the Muslims. Subsequent Crusades were organized to liberate other formerly Christian territories from Muslim control.
However, these subsequent Crusades failed to check the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. Even after the Ottoman Turks’ major defeat at the Battle of Lepanto, they continued incursions into Europe until they invaded Vienna, where a volunteer army defeated them. Only then did the Turkish occupation forces slowly withdraw.
The defensive nature of the Crusades neither means that the Crusaders never committed atrocities nor that any such atrocities committed were justified. Crusading commanders often lost control of their men, who then resorted to killing noncombatants. Most notorious is the fourth Crusade, where the Crusaders, instead of heading to the Holy Land, turned against their fellow Christians and sacked Constantinople. This unfortunate event happened because the Crusaders got themselves entangled in Byzantine politics by promising to install Alexius to the throne in exchange for his writing off their debt to Venice. Looting, killing and vandalism ensued as the Crusaders sacked Constantinople out of revenge against Alexius who reneged on his promise. When the pope learned about what happened, he excommunicated the erring Crusaders.
Several conclusions may be drawn. First, given the nature of the Crusades as defensive wars, equating the Crusades with Isis terrorism is inaccurate. Second, to demonize the Catholic Church or Christianity in general by citing the Crusades shows ignorance at best and malicious disregard of the facts at worst. Furthermore, such demonization approaches history in a simplistic manner that seeks a clear-cut delineation between good guys and bad guys, and that fails to see the complex web of causes and effects surrounding most historical events. The atrocities that took place during the Crusades may have been due to misguided religious zeal; they were also brought about by a confluence of other factors, including universally flawed human nature which no particular religion monopolizes.
I recall a conversation with a Muslim where the Crusades were mentioned. He was a lecturer on “Islam and the Rule of Law” who mentioned in passing that his thesis for his master’s degree was on St. Thomas Aquinas’ natural law theory. Because of my interest in the subject, I introduced myself to him after the lecture and chatted with him. The Crusades got brought up as we discussed how the development of Thomistic philosophy became possible when Aristotelian philosophy was rediscovered in the West through contact with the Arabs during the Crusades. Despite the mention of that sore spot in the history of our religions, the conversation remained pleasant.
It is indeed possible for Christians and Muslims to interact peacefully. But this can only happen if both sides find common ground in the pursuit of truth. The demonization of Christians based on an inaccurate narration of historical events does not advance the pursuit of truth. Thus, it cannot advance the cause of true peace.
Cristina A. Montes graduated from the Master en Derecho de la Globalizacion e Integracion Social program of the Universidad de Navarra in Spain. She also holds bachelor’s degrees in laws and in humanities (specializing in philosophy) from the University of the Philippines and the University of Asia and the Pacific, respectively.
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