St. Francis and the Middle East

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Thomas Cahill, author of Mysteries of the Middle Ages, discusses an unlikely messenger of peace between Christians and Muslims: St. Francis of Assisi.

NEAL CONAN, Host:

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. In his Christmas Day message from St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI called for tolerance and for a solution to conflicts around the world. And he pointed specifically to Africa and the Middle East, conflicts that some describe as part of the clash of civilizations.

Islamic and Christian societies have been generally poor neighbors for centuries, but historian Thomas Cahill sees reason for hope and he finds it in an unlikely setting, amid the blood and fire of the Crusades. In an op-ed that appears in today's New York Times, Cahill celebrates Francis of Assisi and al-Melek-al-Kamil, two men who talked instead of fought, and who, he argues, nearly changed the course of history.

Thomas Cahill's latest book is called "Mysteries of the Middle Ages," and he joins us now from the studio at Airgo Networks in New York City. Thanks for coming in today. Merry Christmas.

THOMAS CAHILL: Merry Christmas, and thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: The Crusades are very violent chapters in history. Where do you find hope for the 21st century?

CAHILL: They're quite - they are really quite horrible. There's so little that's - in the whole history of the Crusades - that you could lift out and say here is something to think about. But there is this one encounter. Francis of Assisi was a most unusual character, even in the 13th century.

And in 1219, he decided to sail across the Mediterranean and visit the court of the great sultan. In the midst of the Fifth Crusade, he was allowed to go to through the enemy lines and he met with the sultan. The sultan was so impressed by Francis that he asked him to stay for a week of conversation, religious conversation, theological conversation. That's what they were doing.

CONAN: This despite the fact that Francis tried to convert him, not then and not now considered healthy under some circumstances.

CAHILL: No. But the sultan, al-Kamil, was a very smart man. He was himself a genuinely religious man. And he recognized in Francis the same qualities. He was very impressed by Francis's courage in coming so far. And of course Francis was dressed as the way Francis - in the way that Francis dressed. He would have looked as if he were wearing a large potato sack, actually.

And interestingly enough, the Sufis of Islam dressed in a similar manner and for similar reasons. They did not wish to be tied down to earthly things like a wardrobe. And so the two men recognized very similar things in one another, very similar religious values.

And Francis ended up staying for a week of conversation with the sultan. I think if they had only been able to talk for two weeks, we might not be faced with some of the things that we are faced with today.

CONAN: You know, it's funny. We think of St. Francis as the patron saint of animals, and as you say, an Italian monk who came from a wealthy family and threw it all away to take those vows of poverty. We don't think of him, as you argue - we do think of him as a Christian, but you say he argued that he has values of Christianity that we don't normally associate with him.

CAHILL: Well, you know, when he got there, he was - and when he got to Egypt, he was horrified by the behavior of his fellow Christians, the Crusaders. They tortured their prisoners of war. They behave very badly. And Francis really didn't see them as people of religion. But he found a real friendship with the sultan, whom he did see as a religious figure.

So he - they kind of - they almost exchanged cultures with one another. And if anything, Francis I think was the more impressed.

CONAN: In your op-ed, you quote Sir Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi for the British Commonwealth. What was it that he said that impressed you?

CAHILL: Well, Sacks has a wonderful book called "The Dignity of Difference," which is just a couple of years old. He - what he's pushing is that we at this point, especially the three monotheisms - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have to come to experience and depreciate the value of difference, that each of these religious has a different story to tell, and each story is in some sense backed by God; we have to come to appreciate one another, not just in our similarities, but in how different we are from one another. And it's only if we begin to do that that we can finally settle these issues that seem to lie between us. Sacks is a wonderfully eloquent figure, and I can't recommend him too highly.

CONAN: Well then, Merry Christmas to Sir Jonathan Sacks and Merry Christmas to you, Thomas Cahill. Thanks very much for coming in.

CAHILL: And to you. Thank you.

CONAN: Thomas Cahill, the author of "The "Gifts of the Jews," "How the Irish Saved Civilization," most recently "Mysteries of the Middle Ages." You can read his op-ed and find out how to download our Opinion Page podcast at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. Be sure to check out the podcast from two weeks ago, with an economist's take on the holiday gift giving.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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