Does the Vatican Owe an Apology to Muslims for the Crusades?

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert Spencer, at frontpagemag.com (3-22-05):

[Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch; author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter); and editor of the essay collection The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: Islamic Law and Non-Muslims (Prometheus). He is working on a new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades (forthcoming from Regnery).]

Ever mindful of keeping the West on the defensive and portraying it as the guilty party in today’s global jihad, Al-Azhar (the highest ranking religious authority in Egypt and most respected Sunni Muslim authority in the world), has asked the Vatican for an official apology for the Crusades. Sheikh Fawzi Zafzaf, President of the Interfaith Dialogue Committee of Al-Azhar, explained that “Al-Azhar is only asking for a similar treatment” following Vatican apologies to other groups. According to the Vatican ambassador to Egypt, the Holy See is thinking it over.

This is just the latest indication that the Crusades have grown into a myth that little resembles reality, and remain politically charged over three years after President Bush was roundly criticized for labeling the war on terror a “Crusade.” Bill Clinton even explained 9/11 as fallout from the Crusades: “Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple mound…. I can tell you that that story is still being told to today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it.”[1]

The West has questioned the Crusades — something probably not possible if the shoe were on the Islamic foot — almost since they took place. Virtually all Westerners have learned to apologize for the Crusades, but less noted is the fact that the Crusades have an Islamic counterpart for which no one is apologizing and of which few are even aware. Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain spoke for many Westerners in Tom Sawyer Abroad when he has Tom explain to Huck Finn that he wants to go to the Holy Land to liberate it from the Muslims.

“How,” Huck asks, “did we come to let them git holt of it?”

“We didn’t come to let them git hold of it,” Tom explains. “They always had it.”

“Why, Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?”

“Why of course it does. Who said it didn’t?”[2]

Historical fact says it didn’t. As it happens, I am these days working on a new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, which will out from Regnery Publishing in a few months. In it, I am clearing away propaganda and telling what really happened. Islam originated in Arabia in the seventh century. At that time Egypt, Libya, and all of North Africa were Christian, and had been so for hundreds of years. So were Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Asia Minor. The churches that St. Paul addressed in his letters collected in the New Testament are located in Asia Minor, modern Turkey, as well as modern Greece. North of Greece, in a buffer zone between Eastern and Western Europe, were lands that would become the Christian domains of the Slavs. Antioch and Constantinople (Istanbul), in modern Turkey, and Alexandria, in modern Egypt, were three of the most important Christian centers of the first millennium.

But then Muhammad and his Muslim armies arose out of the desert, and — as most modern textbooks would put it — these lands became Muslim. But in fact the transition was cataclysmic. Muslims won these lands by conquest and, in obedience to the words of the Qur’an and the Prophet, put to the sword the infidels therein who refused to submit to the new Islamic regime. Those who remained alive lived in humiliating second-class status. Conversion to Islam became the only way to live a decent life. And lo and behold, the Christian populations of these areas steadily diminished.

Conventional wisdom has it that these Christians welcomed the invaders, preferring the yoke of Islam to that of Byzantium. Clinton may be right that Muslims still seethe about the sack of Jerusalem, but he and they are strangely silent about similar behavior on the Muslim side. Here is a contemporary account of the Muslims’ arrival in Nikiou, an Egyptian town, in the 640’s:

Then the Muslims arrived in Nikiou. There was not one single soldier to resist them. They seized the town and slaughtered everyone they met in the street and in the churches — men, women and children, sparing nobody. Then they went to other places, pillaged and killed all the inhabitants they found. . . .But let us now say no more, for it is impossible to describe the horrors the Muslims committed when they occupied the island of Nikiou. . . .

Not only did this involve massacres, but exile and enslavement — all based on a broken treaty:

Amr oppressed Egypt. He sent its inhabitants to fight the inhabitants of the Pentapolis [Tripolitania] and, after gaining a victory, he did not allow them to stay there. He took considerable booty from this country and a large number of prisoners. . . .The Muslims returned to their country with booty and captives. The patriarch Cyrus felt deep grief at the calamities in Egypt, because Amr, who was of barbarian origin, showed no mercy in his treatment of the Egyptians and did not fulfill the covenants which had been agreed with him.

Once the Muslims were entrenched in power, they began to levy the jizya, the tax on non-Muslims:

. . Amr’s position became stronger from day to day. He levied the tax that had been stipulated . . . But it is impossible to describe the lamentable position of the inhabitants of this town, who came to the point of offering their children in exchange for the enormous sums that they had to pay each month, finding no one to help them because God had abandoned them and had delivered the Christians into the hands of their enemies.[3]

An eyewitness of the Muslim conquest of Armenia in 642 tells what happened when they took the town of Dvin: “The enemy’s army rushed in and butchered the inhabitants of the town by the sword. . . . After a few days’ rest, the Ismaelites [Arabs] went back whence they had come, dragging after them a host of captives, numbering thirty-five thousand.”[4]

On the island of Cos a few years later, the Muslim general Abu l-A’war, according to another contemporary account, “laid waste and pillaged all its riches, slaughtered the population and led the remnant into captivity, and destroyed its citadel.”[5]

According to the Syrian Orthodox patriarch, Michael the Syrian (1126–1199), Muslims conquered Cilicia and Caesarea of Cappadocia in the year 650 in this way: They [the Taiyaye, or Muslim Arabs] moved into Cilicia and took prisoners . . . and when Mu’awiya arrived he ordered all the inhabitants to be put to the sword; he placed guards so that no one escaped. After gathering up all the wealth of the town, they set to torturing the leaders to make them show them things [treasures] that had been hidden. The Taiyaye led everyone into slavery — men and women, boys and girls — and they committed much debauchery in that unfortunate town; they wickedly committed immoralities inside churches.[6]

Muslim chroniclers of the time make no secret of this. The Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233), in his world history entitled The Complete History, includes this account of eighth and ninth century Muslim incursions into Spain and France:

In 177 [17 April 793], Hisham, [Muslim] prince of Spain, sent a large army commanded by Abd al-Malik b. Abd al-Wahid b. Mugith into enemy territory, and which made forays as far as Narbonne and Jaranda [Gerona]. . . . For several months he traversed this land in every direction, raping women, killing warriors, destroying fortresses, burning and pillaging everything, driving back the enemy who fled in disorder. He returned safe and sound, dragging behind him God knows how much booty.

In Amorium in Asia Minor in 838, says Michael the Syrian, “there were so many women’s convents and monasteries that over a thousand virgins were led into captivity, not counting those that had been slaughtered. They were given to the Moorish slaves, so as to assuage their lust . . .”[7]

Much later, when Muslim armies resumed their expansion in Europe after a period of relative decline (which most notoriously included the loss of Sicily in 1091, the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099, and the steady erosion of their power in Spain), they held true to this pattern of behavior. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople, the jewel of Christendom, finally fell to an overwhelming Muslim force after weeks of resistance by a small band of valiant Greeks. According to the great historian of the Crusades Steven Runciman, the Muslim soldiers “slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women, and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn. But soon the lust for slaughter was assuaged. The soldiers realized that captives and precious objects would bring them greater profit.”[8]

The circumstances of the first Crusade were these: Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were being molested by Muslims and prevented from reaching the holy places. Some were killed. This was finally the impetus that moved Western Christianity to try to take back just one small portion of the Christian lands that had fallen to the Muslim sword over the last centuries. “The Crusade,” noted historian Bernard Lewis, “was a delayed response to the jihad, the holy war for Islam, and its purpose was to recover by war what had been lost by war — to free the holy places of Christendom and open them once again, without impediment, to Christian pilgrimage.”[9]

Whatever undeniable sins Christians committed during their course, the Crusades were essentially a defensive action: a belated and insufficient attempt by Western Christians to turn back the tide of Islam that had engulfed the Eastern Church. “When accusing the West of imperialism,” says the historian of jihad Paul Fregosi, “Muslims are obsessed with the Christian Crusades but have forgotten their own, much grander Jihad.” The lands in dispute during each Crusade were the ancient lands of Christendom, where Christians had flourished for centuries before Muhammad’s armies called them idolaters and enslaved and killed them. If Westerners had no right to invade these putative Muslim lands, then Muslims had no right to take them in the first place.

Thus if Al-Azhar wants to demand an apology for the Crusades, it should be ready to apologize for the conquest of the Middle East and North Africa. But the most disturbing element of this sorry exercise of historical revision is that their “request” may well be granted by the Vatican. And if it is, it would be just one more link on a long chain of double standards by which Western authorities seem ready to bend over backwards to grant concessions to the Islamic world, while asking for and receiving nothing in return. For example, Al-Azhar itself has praised suicide bombers as martyrs[10] and declared that Islamic states have a religious obligation to acquire nuclear weapons.[11] Yet no one in the West is demanding an apology from them for these approvals of very contemporary menaces. It figures.


[1] Bill Clinton, “Remarks as delivered by President William Jefferson Clinton, Georgetown University, November 7, 2001.” Georgetown University Office of Protocol and Events, www.georgetown.edu.

[2] Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad, University of California Press, 1982, p. 7.

[3] Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996, pp. 271-272.

[4] Ibid., p. 275.

[5] Ibid., p. 276.

[6] Ibid., pp. 276-277.

[7] Ibid., p. 283.

[8] Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453, Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 145.

[9] Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History , Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 163-4.

[10] “Egyptian grand shaykh: Islamic law sees suicide-bombers as martyrs,” Independent Media Review Analysis, November 3, 2003.

[11] “New Islamic Ruling Calls for Nuclear Weapon Armament,” Independent Media Review Analysis, December 24, 2002.

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Stephen Kislock - 3/30/2007

One see plainly that Religion will, dominate this part of the Holy Land, and I say Joking Holy Land it's just the Killing Land.

And they say God is all seeing and all knowing, He/She got it Wrong in this part of the World!

Kenneth T. Tellis - 3/30/2005

The very idea that Sheikh Fawzi Zafzaf, President of the Interfaith Dialogue Committee of Al-Azhar asking for an apology from the Vatican for the Crusades, is arrogance personified.

If from the the invasion of Mesopotamia,Persia and thereafter Asia Minor, Aram (Syria & Lebanon)Egypt, Carthage (Tunisia), Algeria, Morocco and Palestine by the Arabs can be treated as normal, then we will have to overlook the European colonial powers and their invasion of countries in Asia, Africa and America. Of course the European colonial powers have long ago vacated those lands that they ruled in Asia, Africa and America, but that cannot be said of the Arab colonialists, who have never left the countries that they conquered.

Because, there was a deliberate attempt by the Arabs to not only kill or convert, but to sell off as slaves those who would convert to Islam. There is was no such thing as tolerance during the days of the Islamic conquest in Persian, Aram, Egypt or Palestine, because left to own devices wholesale massacres took place territory that the Arabs conquered. Of course, no one has considered that while the European colonialists have left Asia and Africa

There is another dimension to the picture. The Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire on May 29, 1453, brought the wholesale slaughter of White Christians and the bondage of White Women by these Islamists. If we consider what the Crusaders did in Jerusalem, it was a drop in the ocean compared to what the Arabs did during their conquest. And I have not even mentioned the Moorish conquest of Spain and the slaughters that took place there, nor the Amenian genocide of 1915-21 by Turkey. It is therefore the West that needs Islam to apologize for their cruelty towards Christians and not the Vatican for the Crusades.