As a Franciscan and a Christian, I feel uneasy about the violent conflicts in the Middle East, Europe, and on our soil. I feel highly concerned about the frequent reports (and, yes, we need to be aware of the propaganda factor) of innocent civilians being killed or made homeless and forced into harsh refugee situations. Some accidental deaths of civilians and severe dislocations seem sadly unavoidable in warfare, but is our nation doing everything it reasonably can to value and protect such lives?
I am similarly concerned about what is happening to Christian-Muslim relations—and the level of respect and understanding that all people of goodwill want to see between these two world religions. It seems rather clear that Muslims around the world who seek to live out the true spirit of Islam abhor terrorist attacks around the world, as well as the lame attempts of extremists to link such incredibly cruel behavior to the will of God.
Our nation is sincere, I believe, in saying that our war is not against Islam but terrorism. Yet, how does it look to many Muslims around the world when they see the incessant and violent pounding of a Muslim land (Afghanistan) with our massive air attacks. And what do Muslims think when they hear repeated reports of civilian casualties of Muslims and the worsening plight of Muslim refugees. For example, many fear that thousands and thousands of refugee children may starve or die in the freezing cold as winter sets in.
It’s imperative that we find ways to show concern for the precious lives of innocent civilians and children. Otherwise, our insistence that we are fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and not Islam will become harder and harder to believe. In this country, too, there are instances of brothers and sisters being harassed, threatened or assaulted by bigoted individuals because they are Muslim—or simply because they are Arab or Middle Eastern in appearance. This can only add to the impression in Muslim circles that Islam itself is under attack. We need to work harder to bring our actions into greater harmony with our words.
At this point, we look to an incident in the life of Saint Francis that can serve as a model for solving conflicts in a nonviolent way and for improving understanding between Christians and Muslims. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who lived during the time of the Crusades, had come to distrust violence and war. In the year 1219 he sought a non-violent way to solve the conflict between Christians and Muslims. Francis journeyed to Damietta, Egypt, near the mouth of the Nile, determined to have a meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, even as Christian crusaders were engaged in bloody conflict with the Muslim forces nearby.
Francis succeeded in getting an audience with Sultan Malek-el-Kamel. Though Francis tried to persuade the Sultan of the good news of Jesus’ saving love for all, the Sultan was not drawn away from his own faith and convictions. Yet, he saw Francis’ enthusiasm and courage and listened to him courteously and with admiration. He saw to it, moreover, that Francis was given safe passage back to the Christian camp. In our day, we need to follow the example of Saint Francis and the sultan and reach out in respectful dialogue with our brothers and sisters of different religions and cultures.