Trailblazing preacher

Francis of Assisi


Writing his first Rule in 1209, 27-year-old Francis called on his followers to preach to and convert Muslims: "Let any brother who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister and servant."

Francis, a radical who had renounced his father's wealth to embrace a lifestyle of poverty and relentless preaching, sent his first missionary to one of the crusader states in Syria in 1217. Two years later, he commissioned six more men to go to Morocco. News eventually filtered back that five of the friars reached Morocco and began preaching in the streets, but they were decapitated by angry Muslims.

As the father of a growing order, the Friars Minor, Francis debated whether he should visit the war zone himself. Eventually he responded to a call from Pope Honorius III, who sought preachers to invigorate the soldiers of the Fifth Crusade.

In 1219 Francis set sail for Damietta, Egypt, where crusaders were besieging a Muslim fortress. While the battle raged, Francis hatched a plan to cross over the lines to try to convert Saladin's nephew, Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

The sultan's sentinels, thinking Francis and his companion Illuminato came with a message from the crusaders, ushered them directly into al-Kamil's presence.

When the sultan questioned them about their business, Francis answered, "We are telling you in all truth that if you die in the law which you now profess, you will be lost and God will not possess your soul. It is for this reason we have come."

The sultan's counselors called for the friars' execution. They told al-Kamil, "Lord, you are the sword of the law: you have the duty to maintain and defend it. We command ...

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