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How Christians, Muslims can find peace

By Paul Moses, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pope plans interreligious meeting to seek ways religions can promote peace
  • Pope's announcement came hours after church bombing killed 21 in Alexandria, Egypt
  • Paul Moses says example of St. Francis and Sultan al-Kamil is one we can learn from
  • Author says the sultan showed the kind of tolerance for other faiths that people need today

Editor's note: Paul Moses, professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of "The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace" (Doubleday, 2009).

New York (CNN) -- Speaking hours after a terrorist attack killed 21 people in a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would hold an interreligious meeting in October in Assisi, Italy, to discuss with other religious leaders how religion can promote world peace.

It would mark the 25th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace that Pope John Paul II held there on October 26, 1986. The choice of Assisi, a town in Central Italy, as the venue is certainly not for its access to an airport: It is chosen as the home town of St. Francis, the beloved Christian saint whose generosity of spirit and constant striving for peace are exemplified in a remarkably amicable encounter he had with Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil in the midst of the Fifth Crusade in 1219.

With Francis' example beginning to inspire Christians in interreligious dialogue, it's time to say that Sultan al-Kamil, too, can be a model.

It is not clear yet who is responsible for the horrific bombing in Alexandria, which followed threats from an al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq. What is clear is that Sultan al-Kamil provides an example of Muslim respect for Christian holiness.

Sultan al-Kamil, nephew of the great Muslim warrior Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or Saladin, led Egypt for some 40 years as viceroy and sultan. He thrived during a difficult period marked by famine and attacks by the Mongols from the east and the crusaders from the west.

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When Francis crossed enemy lines to reach the sultan's camp near the Nile during the summer of 1219, the sultan had every reason to dismiss a man who wanted to preach his enemy's faith. But he allowed the friar to remain for several days of discussions.

The sultan's conduct reflected traditional Muslim respect for holy Christian monks -- a tradition that goes back to the Prophet Mohammed, who met Christian monks. It is said that some of the monks were among the first to recognize in him the potential to be a prophet. The Quran speaks affectionately of Christian monks, saying their eyes brim with tears at the recognition of God's truth.

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.

While I was writing a book about the encounter between the saint and the sultan, I started out with the usual journalistic skepticism about someone as powerful as the sultan. He won me over as I researched his life; I came to realize Sultan al-Kamil was a statesman whose wise actions were closely informed by his religious faith.

On one occasion, I took a few hours from my research in Cairo to speak to a group of students at a Christian girls' school. Although Egyptian schoolchildren have thousands of years of history to study, these students immediately recognized the sultan when I spoke about him, viewing him as a leader who was both kind and strong.

When world religious leaders gather in the hometown of Francis of Assisi this October to discuss how religion can be a tool for peace, they would do well to point to the example of the Muslim leader who was willing to hear him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Moses.