BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
SCHOLARS have come to the defence of the Crusades, insisting that they were fought for a just cause.
Speakers and delegates at a Vatican-sponsored conference in Rome last weekend said that the Crusade's, who waged war between 1095 and 1270, were not a bunch of barbarians but spiritually motivated knights at arms intent on securing the safety of pilgrims.
The discussions are in contrast to John Paul Il's attempts in 2000 to seek Muslim-Christian reconciliation by acknowledging the "distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken toward the followers of other religions".
In 2005 Al-Azhar, the highest ranking religious authority in Egypt and the most respected Sunni Muslim authority in the world, also asked the Vatican for an official apology for the Crusades following Vatican "apologies" to other groups.
Yet in an apparent change of tone, the Church now appears to be siding with the view that the eight campaigns were in fact clearly provoked by Muslim aggression against Christians. Italian newspapers have also speculated that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was irritated by the apologists and wanted to set the record straight.
Roberto de lvlattei, one of the leading speakers at the conference at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, said the Crusades were not a premeditated act of violence against Muslims "but a response to the Muslim invasion of the Christian lands and the Muslim devastation of the Holy Places".
The Italian historian said that the desecration of the Holy Sepulchre by Muslim forces in 1009 provoked the First Crusade when Pope Urban 11 called on all of Christendom to take up arms to free the Holy Land from the "Muslim infidel".
He added that the Crusaders were true "martyrs" of the Church who had given up their lives for their faith and should be honoured as such.
Robert Spencer, author of A Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam, told the conference that the mistaken view had taken hold in the West, as well as the Arab world, that the Crusades were an unprovoked attack. In reality the battles only started after great incitement from the occupying Muslim forces.
Recent film depictions of the Crusades — notably Ridley Scott's lacklustre epic The Kingdom of Heaven — have portrayed the knights as little more than barbarians intent on monetary reward rather than spiritual salvation. But another speaker at the conference, Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University, said this
was "utter nonsense". The professor said the filmmakers had taken liberties with the script, which was "historically inaccurate", with its fashionable typecast of the Muslims as civilised and the Crusaders as barbarians.
He said it served only to fuel extremists' version of history and had "nothing to do with reality". He acknowledged that the Crusaders were capable of acts of great cruelty but this was true of all soldiers fighting "ideological wars". In fact, some of the worst excesses of the Crusader campaign were enacted against Orthodox Christians in the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
Richard I of England — more commonly known as the Coeur de Lion — led the Third Crusade, which included the successful capture of Acre on the Mediterranean coast. But hampered by political problems at home, the desertion of former allies and the logistical problem of how to hold Jerusalem in the event of capturing it, he made a truce with Saladin, the Muslim conqueror who had defeated earlier Christian armies. Richard did not set eyes on Jerusalem but returned to Europe, where he died from a crossbow shot.
Despite widespread brutality on both sides, history records that Saladin had vowed that if he had to lose Jerusalem he would rather it was lost to the Lionheart in honour of his fighting prowess.
Many Muslims continue to view the Crusades as typical of western aggression against Islam. Al-Qaeda claims to be fighting a "latter-day jihad against the Jews and Crusaders".