Can you tell me more about the Crusades?

Q: In light of the president’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast referencing ISIS to the Crusades as if the beheadings, burnings, etc. throughout the ages had already happened in the “name of Jesus,” I would like to know a little history of the Crusades/Inquisitions. Did the Christians try to take back their holy sites in self-defense from the Muslim “mad men?” Was it a “just war”? — A reader in Woodstock

A: Given the circumstances in which we live and with so many politicians referring to Islam as a “peaceful religion,” the subject of the Crusades is used not only to ameliorate the atrocities of Islamic extremists but also to discredit Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church. Also, too many people only have knowledge of the Crusades through a superficial and selective presentation of events as presented on the History Channel or by the politically correct intelligentsia. Three resources that provide a fair and true presentation on the Crusades include Warren Carroll’s The Glory of Christendom (Volume III of the series, A History of Christendom), Regine Pernoud’s The Crusaders and Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions.

Let’s begin with a brief overview: Pope Urban II in 1095 declared the First Crusade (1096-99) at the Council of Clermont. The last crusade, designated as the Seventh Crusade, was waged 1265-72. During the First Crusade, Jerusalem was liberated from Muslim control, and the kingdom of Jerusalem was established and would last until July 1291, when the last Crusaders’ possessions in the Holy Land were surrendered.

While “Straight Answers” cannot delve into every detail of the Crusades, we must remember that no war, no matter how just, is without unjust and tragic events. For example, World War II was a just war fought to stop Nazi and Japanese aggression; nevertheless, not every act of the Allies was just, like the use of incendiary bombs on Hamburg or Dresden. Keep in mind, because of the events of World Wars I and II, Vatican Council II condemned acts of indiscriminate warfare (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 80). Nevertheless, as General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.”

So rather than deal with isolated incidents and then condemn with a broad brush stroke a war in toto, one must ask, “Was the war waged for just cause?”

When Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, there was just cause. We must know the facts. Muslims believe Muhammad (570-632) had visions beginning in 610; in these visions, Allah literally dictated the Koran. (Scholarship shows the Koran is a blending of tenets of Judaism, Christianity, bedouin paganism, and heretical Nestorianism.) By 622, Mecca converted to Islam. Then, the warfare began, and Islam spread by the sword, i.e. jihad. Muhammad’s message was, “He who dies spreading the faith enters paradise.” Islam itself means “submission,” submission of everyone to Allah, Muhammad and the Koran. By his death in 632, Arabia was Islamic.

The Muslims then waged war beyond their borders: Damascus fell in 635, Jerusalem in 638 and Alexandria in 641. By 652, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Persia had fallen to Islam. By 730, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan and Spain had fallen. The Muslims would have taken France, but Charles Martel stopped them at the Battle of Tours in 732. Remember: These were all Christian lands that were unjustly attacked. However, the Koran justified these acts: “True believers fight for the cause of God, but the infidels fight for the devil. Fight, then, against the friends of Satan” (Sura 4:76); “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous” (Sura 9:123); and “Muhammad is God’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another” (Sura 48:28). Keep in mind that the Koran has 164 verses devoted to jihad, the waging of “holy war” against non-believers, i.e. infidels.

Then, what happened when the Christians were now under Islamic government? The choice was convert, leave or face persecution. They were forced to pay an onerous tax call the jizya. At times, they could not leave the village or own property or a horse. They could not testify as a witness because their word was not accepted against that of a Muslim. They were forbidden to build new churches, repair old ones or even ring the bells. Many of the sacred shrines in the Holy Land were desecrated or destroyed. They had to wear distinctive clothing marking them as “infidels.” Such was the life of the Christian in Muslim-occupied territory (as it is today in the current Islamic State and to some degree in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Here, too, the Koran teaches, “Fight against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe neither in God nor the last day, who do not forbid what God and His apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the true faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued” (Sura 9:29); and “Those who follow (Muhammad) are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another” (Sura 48:29).

In 1009, Caliph Hakim (caliph denotes the successor of Muhammad), known for his draconian rule and sadism, began a terrible persecution of the Christians and Jews. He started to destroy all the churches and monasteries of Palestine. Christians were forced to wear around their necks a copper cross weighing 10 pounds, and Jews had to carry a calf’s head made of wood.

Pilgrimages also were stopped and pilgrims attacked. Keep in mind that for the Medieval Christian, a pilgrimage to visit the holy sites of the Gospel was an important part of Christian life. One of the last triggers for declaring a Crusade involved the massacre of Bishop Gunther of Bamberg and 12,000 pilgrims — rich and poor, nobility and peasants — on Good Friday 1065. When they were between Caesarea and Ramleh, with two days’ journey left until reaching Jerusalem, they were attacked by the Muslims. A few pilgrims escaped, but most were murdered and some were sold into slavery.

Finally, Christians realized action had to be taken. Righteous war had to be waged against jihad. The Christians had just cause. Byzantine Emperor Alexius (1080-1118) appealed to Pope Urban II for aid. On Nov. 18, 1095, at the Council of Clermont, the Holy Father said, “An accursed race … has violently invaded Christian lands and depopulated them by pillage and fire. … They have either destroyed God’s churches or taken them for the rites of their own religion. … They have robbed us of the tomb of Jesus Christ, that wonderful monument of our faith. … On whom is the duty of avenging these wrongs and recovering the territory, if not upon yourselves? If you do not make a stand against the enemy now, the tide of their advance will overwhelm many more faithful servants of God.” So, as a last resort, the legitimate leaders with good intention declared a Crusade for just cause.

Therefore, the declaration of a Crusade was an act of just war. Again, that does not mean every act was just, since war is waged by human beings who are victims of original sin. Moreover, while the Muslims eventually drove the Crusaders out of the originally Christian lands they had reconquered, jihad continued. Constantinople fell in 1453. Other battles were successfully waged to stop Muslim aggression into Europe: the Battle of Belgrade, 1456 (commemorated by the feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6), the Battle of Malta, 1565; the Battle of Lepanto, 1571 (commemorated by the feast of the holy rosary, Oct. 7); and the Battle of Vienna, 1683 (commemorated by the feast of the holy name of Mary, Sept. 12, although defeat of the Muslim forces was Sept. 11).

And now, the jihad continues. As we continue to face the spin of political correctness about both current events as well as the Crusades, we need to recall the words of the American philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”