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Conquest, Desecration, and Phony History

Worldwide attention is focused on the crisis in Iraq as Sunni Muslim militant forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sweep through the region killing and rampaging unimpeded.

A recent Washington Post article highlighted ISIS’s destruction of the purported tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah. The author did a good job describing ISIS’s motives (basically, if it’s not Sunni Muslim it’s bad) and correctly noted that militants destroying sacred places in the name of religion is not a new historical phenomenon. The article noted the Roman army’s destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the Nazi rampage against “degenerate art,” and the Taliban’s attack on the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

However, mixed in with these historical acts was the false assertion that “during the Crusades, Christians destroyed mosques.” Though quite typical of Western media treatment of the Crusades, linking the Crusades to the “caliphate of brutality” is historically inaccurate—as both Christian and Muslim contemporary sources attest.

After the success of the First Crusade (1096-1102), most surviving Crusaders returned home, but a few settled in what historians call the Latin East. Some additional settlers came from Europe, but the Christian settlers were never numerous, and they remained minority rulers of large Muslim populations. They remained mostly in urban areas and numbered approximately 150,000 people at their height.[1] 

The Franks, as their Muslim neighbors called them regardless of where in Europe they came from, soon found that accommodation with the local populace was the path to growth and success. Relations between the Franks and Muslims were shaped by mutual benefit and general indifference. There was very little cultural exchange and very few conversions.  One reason for the lack of conversion was the allowance by the Latin settlers for Jews and Muslims to openly practice their faith. The Crusades were never wars of conversion, and this is borne out by the period of tolerance that followed the first and most successful Crusade.

The Franks allowed their Jewish and Muslim neighbors to construct synagogues and mosques, and even when they utilized former mosques for the site of churches, they set aside areas for Muslim prayer on the site.[2] The Muslim traveler Usamah ibn Munqidh recorded how he was allowed not only to pray at a mosque near the former al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, which had been turned into a church, but that Templars—a military religious order of monks—even expelled a newly arrived Christian who was annoyed at how Munqidh prayed:

Whenever I visited Jerusalem I always entered the Aqsa mosque… The Templars, who were my friends, would evacuate the little adjoining mosque so that I might pray in it. One day I entered this mosque… and stood up in the act of praying, upon which one of the Franks rushed on me, got hold of me and turned my face eastward saying, “This is the way thou shouldst pray.” A group of Templars hastened to him, seized him and repelled him from me. They apologized to me, saying, “This is a stranger who has only recently arrived  from the land of the Franks and he has never before seen anyone praying except eastward.”[3]

Muslims were not only allowed to pray and practice their faith openly in the Latin East but they also kept their own customs and administration. The Latin settlers even employed some Muslims in prominent roles of local administration.[4] This policy of accommodation even manifested itself in a desire for some Muslims to live within the jurisdiction of the Latin settlers rather than that of their own rulers! (Another reason for this was the tax rate was lower for Muslims in the Kingdom of Jerusalem than in Muslim ruled territories.[5]) 

Rather than engaging in an ISIS-like campaign of widespread destruction, the Latin settlers spent their energies restoring and rebuilding holy places, and establishing mutually respectful coexistence with other religions in the area.[6] This is because the Crusades were not undertaken to eradicate or destroy Islam but rather to liberate ancient Christian territory that had been conquered by Muslim rulers. Comparing the Crusades to the current destructive operations of ISIS not only misunderstands the nature of the on-going conflict in Iraq but also grossly distorts the authentic history of the Crusades, which, ultimately, is an attack on the Church itself.

If you want to learn more about the Crusades, check out my CD/MP3 set, The Real Story of the Crusades, available from Catholic Answers Press.

[1] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades – A History, 2nd edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 66.

[2] As an example, this happened at the Latin cathedral in the port city of Acre.

[3] Quoted in Riley-Smith, The Crusades, 71.

[4] Quoted in Régine Pernoud, The Crusaders, trans. Enid Grant (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 172.

[5] For the lower tax rate see Hannes Möhring, Saladin – The Sultan and His Times, 1138 – 1193, tran. David S. Bahrach, intro & preface Paul M. Cobb (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 30.

[6] The rebuilding and restoration efforts began slowly but peaked in the 1140s right before the Second Crusade. Ultimately, the Franks built, rebuilt or restored four hundred churches in the Kingdom of Jerusalem including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was dedicated on July 15, 1149, the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem. The church was greatly modified principally by enclosing the Tomb of Christ and the place of Crucifixion on Calvary within one building. See Ammon Linder, “The 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Jerusalem”, Crusades, vol. 7, The Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 48.



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