CAIRO - The choice of the name of a middle age saint for the newly-elected Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio has revived a debate among scholars about the name, which refers to one of the most violent episodes of Christian crusades in the Muslim world.
"I can't believe that the choice of his namesake is only about deference to poor people, as important and admirable as that is," the Rev. William Hugo, a Capuchin Franciscan brother and priest in St. Joseph, Wis., told USA Today.
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Francis, who is revered for his radical poverty and humility, is the name of a middle age saint, who participated in one of the Christian crusades in the Muslim world.
"The story of Francis seeking out Al-Kamil would surely raise up in Pope Francis the desire to reach out and be in relationship with those suffering a separation or (who are) excluded," said Hugo, referring to the events that occurred back in 1219 during a crusade campaign that besieged the walled Egyptian city of Damietta.
Leaving the camps, St. Francis crossed Muslim lines to meet with Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt.
The goal of the visit, however, has divided scholars over the past centuries, with some believing it was motivated by peace and others by proselytizing.
"Francis's goal was, of course, conversion, not coexistence, said Philip Daileader, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
And while some 13th-century Christian commentators criticized the crusades for their violence, Francis was not among those critics.
His joining up with the 5th Crusade suggests a tacit acceptance of crusading.
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns of a religious character waged by much of Christian Europe during 1095-1291.
The campaigns, most of which were sanctioned by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, had the goal of recapturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule.
But other scholars defended the crusading saint, saying his main motivation was to promote peace.
"He wanted to see the sultan because he was pained, and he felt guilty," said Jon Sweeney, author of the new book, Francis of Assisi In His Own Words: The Essential Writings.
He saw the carnage and it was his church that was doing it."
Chris van Gorder, a scholar of Christian-Muslim relations at Baylor University, thinks that St. Francis, was driven by compassion, a hatred for war, a desire to learn from others, and "to build missionistic bridges of reconciliation and healing."
"St. Francis of Assisi was a confident evangelist and a fearless peacemaker who was appalled at the rapacious violence of his era," he said.
Paul Moses, author of "The Saint and the Sultan," a 2009 book that explores St. Francis' pivotal engagement with Islam, shares a similar opinion.
"We're seeing the church interpret Francis in modern times as a bridge," Moses said.
"To Muslims ears, the choice of Francis for a name should sound good."
Either for peace or proselytizing, St. Francis' meeting with Egypt's sultan changed many misconceptions about Islam and Muslims which Europeans spread to justify the crusades.
"Attitudes toward Muslims at that time were hostile beyond imaginings," said van Gorder.
"St. Francis was prepared to be a martyr and was warned by his colleagues that there was a price for the head of a Christian in the sultan's court, and that his death would almost be certain if he persisted in his plans to go to the sultan's camp."
Although there are no first-hand accounts of the meeting, historians say it had a tremendous influence on both men.
Al-Kamil, known as a tolerant ruler who offered religious freedom to Christians, received St. Francis hospitably, allowing him to stay in his court for several days and even preach.
The two talked about religion, war and other issues.
During his stay, St. Francis made no requests of the sultan, except shortly before he departed, when he asked for a meal, possibly with the hope of breaking bread with Al-Kamil.
"The hagiography portrays the two men as having a profound impact on each other. They parted in peace with each other and gained respect for the other," said Hugo.
The visit has a profound impact of St. Francis who returned to Italy to make changes to his rules, allowing Franciscans to live peaceably among Muslims and under Muslim rule, without trying to convert them.
Before the visit, Franciscans were allowed to engage Muslims with the goal of converting them.
"That was revolutionary at that time," said Moses.
For many, St. Francis attitude presented a model for 21st century dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
While it's not clear if Pope Francis will look to St. Francis for interfaith guidance, he would not be the first pontiff to do so.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II led the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, inviting religious leaders from several different faiths to the saint's birthplace.
Pope Benedict, who was not a big supporter of the World Day of Prayer, according to Moses, returned for the 25th anniversary in 2011.
"Pope John Paul II looked to Francis as a figure that can provide inspiration in today's world as to how we approach other religions," said Moses."The pope didn't just pick that site because it's easy to get to."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net