This year has seen the 900th anniversary of the First Crusade - an event that has opened the gate in some European publications to anti-Catholic writings seeking to discredit the Church and her teachings. In a number of recent articles, the Crusades have been described as Holy Wars and the massacre of Jews at the time as a forerunner of the Holocaust.
A number of prominent Italian Catholic writers have sought to set the record straight.
Vittorio Messori, the journalist who interviewed John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pointed out, in a recent article in the respected Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, that it was the Enlightenment that first cast a "black legend" shadow on the Crusades, using it as a weapon in its psychological war against the Roman Catholic Church ... In order to complete the work of the Reformation, it was 18th century Europe that began the chain of 'Roman infamies' that have become dogma."
According to Messori: "In connection with the Crusades, it was anti-Catholic propaganda that invented the name ... It goes without saying that those who attacked Jerusalem 900 years ago would have been very surprised had they been told that they were engaged in what eventually would be known as the 'first Crusade.' For them it was an itinerary, a 'pilgrimage,' a route, a passage. Those same 'armed pilgrims' would have been even more surprised had they foreseen the accusations levelled against them of trying to convert the 'infidel,' of securing commercial routes to the West, of creating European 'colonies' in the Middle East ...
"The dark invention of the 'Crusade' has ended by instilling a feeling of guilt in the West, including among some members of the Church, who are ignorant of what really happened ... In the East, the legend has turned against the entire West: we all pay - and will continue to pay, the consequences of the Islamic masses' desire for revenge, of their call for vengeance against the 'Great Satan,' which, by the way, is not just the United States, but the whole of Christianity, the very one responsible for the 'Crusades'."
But the question to be asked in the context of more than a thousand years of Christian-Islamic relations, says Messori, is "who has been the victim and who the aggressor?" When Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in 638, the city had been Christian for over three centuries. Soon after, the Prophet's disciples invaded and destroyed the glorious churches of Egypt, first, and then of North Africa, causing the extinction of Christianity in places that had had bishops like St Augustine.
Later it was the turn of Spain, Sicily and Greece, and the land that would eventually become Turkey, where the communities founded by St Paul himself were turned into ruins. In 1453, after seven centuries of siege, Constantinople, the second Rome, capitulated and became Islamic. The Islamic threat reached the Balkans but, miraculously, the onslaught was stopped and forced to turn back at Vienna's walls. If the Jerusalem massacre of 1099 is execrated, Mohammed II's action in Otranto [Italy] in 1480 must not be forgotten.
Messori concluded: "At present, what Moslem country respects the civil rights and freedom of worship of any other than their own? Who is angered by the genocide of Armenians in the past, and of Sudanese Christians at present? According to the devotees of the Koran, is the world not divided between the 'Islamic territory' and the 'war territory' - all those areas that must be converted to Islam, whether they like it or not?
"A simple review of history, along very general lines, confirms an obvious truth: Christianity is constantly on the defensive when it comes to Moslem aggression; this has been the case from the beginning until now. For example, in Africa at present there is a bloody offensive by the Moslems to convert ethnic groups that the heroic sacrifices of generations of missionaries had succeeded in baptising. Admittedly, some in the course of history need to ask for forgiveness. But, in this instance, must it be Catholics who ask for forgiveness for actions in self- defence, and for keeping the road open for pilgrimage to Jesus' places, which was the reason for the Crusades?"
Dr Franco Cardini, an expert in Medieval history, contributed to the debate with an article in the Italian newspaper Avvenire, entitled "Crusades - Not Religious Wars."
In his article, Professor Cardini explains that the interpretation of the Crusades as antecedents of religious and ideological wars was a thesis advanced during the Enlightenment.
"The Crusades," says Cardini, "were never 'religious wars,' their purpose was not to force conversions or suppress the infidel. The excesses and violence committed in the course of the expeditions (which did occur and must not be forgotten) must be evaluated in the painful but usual context of ... military events, keeping in mind that, undoubtedly, some theological reason always justified them.
"The Crusade was an armed pilgrimage that developed slowly over time, between the 11th and 13th centuries, which must be understood by being inserted in the context of the extended relations between Christianity and Islam, which have produced positive cultural and economic results ... If this was not the case, how could one explain the frequent friendships, including military alliances, between Christians and Moslems, in the history of the Crusades?"
To describe the Crusade as a "Holy War" against the Moslems is misleading, says Cardini: "The real interest in these expeditions, in service of Christian brethren threatened by Moslems, was the restoration of peace in the East, and the early stirring of the idea of rescue for distant fellow-Christians. The Crusade posited reconciliation with the adversary before departure, renouncement of disputes and vengeance, acceptance of possible martyrdom ...".