In the wake of the suicide bombing at a Coptic Christian Church in Egypt on New Year’s Day, which killed 21 people and wounded almost a hundred more, Pope Benedict has called for a second gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi this October to mark the 25th anniversary of the first “World Day of Prayer for Peace,” hosted by John Paul II in 1986.
Choosing St. Francis as the patron for a gathering on peace and inter-religious dialogue is a no-brainer; but Paul Moses, author of The Saint and the Sultan, says that we should also look to Egypt’s own Sultan Malik al-Kamil, with whom Francis had such a fruitful encounter during the Crusades, as a model of “Muslim respect for Christian holiness”:
Medieval accounts from the Coptic Church, the ancient church of Egypt, praise Sultan al-Kamil for his tolerance. He ruled in Coptic Christians’ favor when a dispute broke out about whether to build a church or mosque on a Cairo site. Coptic Christians paraded happily in the streets of Cairo on another occasion when he favored them in a dispute over possession of gold vessels and other treasures discovered during the construction of a well in a monastery.
He also dealt wisely with Coptic Christians when called to decide a controversy within their church over who would become the patriarch. And when he defeated the invading Christian army in the Fifth Crusade, he shocked the starving crusaders by feeding them and assuring their transport home. At the same time, he was a loyal Sunni Muslim who built religious schools and a beautiful domed memorial to one of Islam’s great scholars, Iman al-Shafi’i.
Moses points out that even schoolchildren in Egypt are familiar with the sultan’s story, “viewing him as a leader who was both kind and strong.” As tensions mount between present-day Copts and Muslims — as well as between Christians and the Egyptian government — we could do worse than to urge the sultan’s example to faithful Muslims and Christians alike.