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Revisiting Christianity's "Holy Wars"
While critics tend to ignore the context of the Crusades as opposition to Muslim conquest, the Crusades have rightly gone down in history as one of the Church's darkest hours.

"Yeah, but what about the Crusades?"

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
Crusaders defend Jerusalem from an onslaught of Muslim forces in
Kingdom of Heaven.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Most Christians in the West have likely encountered responses such as this many times over from various skeptics. Like the Inquisition and witch-burnings, the Crusades are a reliable cliché, regularly trotted out by people looking for good reasons not to listen to the claims of Christ; and, like those other atrocities of Church history, the Crusades are indeed a legitimate object of scorn.

However, secular critics tend to ignore the historical context of the Crusades, and the role played by Muslim military ambitions. In The Sword of Islam, part of "The Christians" book series, Canadian publisher Ted Byfield stated: "Christians are frequently castigated in the media over the Crusades, the 200-year effort to establish a Christian state in Palestine. This is customarily portrayed as an unprovoked Christian attack. But the Crusades were, in fact, a counterattack, an attempt by Christians to recover the lands and peoples that had been wrested from them during the Muslim conquests 300 years earlier."

Nevertheless, while it is clear that the excesses of some Islamic regimes provoked the Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades have rightly gone down in history as one of the Church's darkest hours.


Ostensibly charged with retaking the Holy Land from Muslims, some Crusaders took the opportunity to butcher thousands of European Jews in their travels; Western Christians slaughtered Eastern Christians wholesale at the siege of Constantinople, an event which soured Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox relations for centuries; and the momentum of the campaigns against Islam led directly to both the Inquisition and the vicious extermination of the Gnostic Cathars of France.

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
Former Monty Python member
Terry Jones offered his irreverent
take on the Crusades in a 1995

Like it or not, the Western Church must deal with the appalling legacy of slaughter, greed and power-mongering which characterized much of the crusading era.

A minor but significant media debate concerning the Crusades was recently provoked by the release of directly Ridley Scott's big-budget film, Kingdom of Heaven. The film was dismissed by some critics as a revisionist exercise more concerned with political correctness than historical accuracy; others, however, commended the film-makers for using the Crusades as a means of making a plea for tolerance between Islam and the West.

In Reflecting on the Crusades, Tony Campolo wrote: "It is time for Christians and Muslims alike to reflect seriously upon the Crusades and how the same realities and tensions that caused these ancient wars shape our world today. Kingdom of Heaven offers an opportunity to consider the mistakes of our past, so we might choose a different path for our future."

In a National Post editorial inspired by the film's release, Christian columnist and talk show host Michael Coren took the opportunity to critique the common secular view of the Crusades. "There is nothing easier to attack in these addled times than an enterprise with its origins in Europe or Christendom, particularly if the alleged victims are members of another religion," he opined, observing: "George W. Bush was obliged to remove the word 'crusade' from his speeches about the war on terror. In Arab rhetoric, it is a standard insult to call opponents 'Crusaders,' and to claim that the Crusades have never ended. Odd, really—in that the Muslims started these wars in the first place."

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade
with an impassioned speech at the
Council of Clermont in 1095.

While this is clearly true, it is important to remember that, under Muslim rule in the early centuries of Islam, Christians and Jews were often permitted to continue their own religious practices, within some restrictions. Indeed, as Rollin Armour writes in Islam, Christianity and the West, "The Islamic pattern of relative toleration contrasts rather sharply with Christian Europe, which moved more and more to persecution … Over the centuries, it was generally better to be a Christian or a Jew in an Islamic society than a Jew or Muslim in a Christian society."

"A pagan people … "

Nevertheless, it is evident that not all Muslims were quite so tolerant. In 1074, Pope Gregory VII appealed to Count William of Burgundy for help in countering the actions of the Seljuk Turks. In a letter released to the Roman Catholic community, he wrote: "A pagan people has prevailed strongly against the Christian Empire. They have already cruelly laid waste and occupied with tyrannical violence everything … . They have slain many thousands of Christians, as if they were herds of beasts … . Brotherly love demands that we lay down our lives for the liberation of our brethren."

Two decades later, reports of increasing persecution of believers and vicious assaults against Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land reached the ears of Gregory's successor, Pope Urban II—and the rest, indeed, is history writ large.

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
Crusading knights charge into battle, in Kingdom of Heaven.
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

At the Council of Clermont in November 1095, according to the account of one Robert the Monk, Urban whipped his congregation into a religious frenzy with lurid allegations of Muslim atrocities: "They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture the people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging, they lead the victim around until—the viscera having gushed forth—the victim falls prostrate upon the ground."

Urban exhorted his followers to liberate Jerusalem, the city which "the Redeemer of the human race has made illustrious by his advent, has beautified by residence, has consecrated by suffering, has redeemed by death, has glorified by burial. This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by his enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God."

The pope then made a grandiose—and theologically perverted—promise: "Undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven." According to another source, Urban had the temerity to add: "Christ commands it." His listeners, it is said, famously responded with equal fervour: "It is the will of God!"

Onward Christian soldiers

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
The battle of Nicopol, in 1396.

"In one short paragraph … Pope Urban II overturned 1,000 years of Church teaching," responded Ergun and Emir Caner in Christian Jihad.

The authors—respected Christian scholars who were once Muslims—insightfully elaborated: "The Just War criteria had been replaced by a theology of retribution … . Cessation of violence was not the ultimate aim of the war, but rather eternal forgiveness and the promise of heaven. The new war theory was both brutal and unbiblical. Urban promised that whoever lifted arms against the Muslims entered into a holy war and would be saved. Either by shedding the blood of the infidels, or by dying on the battlefield, the warrior was promised eternal salvation." Ominously, the authors added, "For the first time in history, an army was gathered under the aegis of the cross of Jesus Christ, sanctified by the pope to kill in the name of the Lord." Many of the "holy warriors" entered the fray with missionary zeal, as Raymond of Aguilers demonstrates in his account of the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem:

"Some of our men … cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames." At the Temple of Solomon, soldiers "rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies."

As Christianity has become increasingly embattled over the years, countless critics have seized upon such accounts to bolster their distaste for the faith.

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
The siege of Tunis, in 1270

However, as quoted in Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith, historian John D. Woodbridge handily asserted the appropriate response: "It's important to remember that it's not Jesus' teachings that are at fault here; it's the actions of those who, for whatever reason, strayed from what He clearly taught: we are to love our enemies … Nobody was more outspoken against hypocrisy or cruelty than Jesus. Consequently, if critics believe that aspects of the Crusades should be denounced as hypocritical and violent—well, they'd have an ally in Christ."

In the centuries since the end of the Roman Catholic Church's military ambitions, what is perceived by some as a "crusading spirit" has tainted even clearly well-intended missionary initiatives in the Middle East. Many observers have condemned the Western variety of Christianity as simply an instrument of colonialism.


Many 19th century missionaries "fit into this story of imperialism, because they benefited directly from the expansion of Western influence in the Middle East," wrote Heather J. Sharkey in "Arabic Anti-Missionary Treatises," in the July 2004 issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research. She elaborated: "As Westerners in Ottoman domains, [missionaries] enjoyed access to a set of special legal rights and exemptions … which afforded something akin to diplomatic immunity." Under this protection, missionaries "were able to do what had once been unthinkable in Islamic state domains: to attempt openly to convert Muslims."

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
Orlando Bloom as Balian, Christian defender of
Jerusalem, in Kingdom of Heaven.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Muslim frustration eventually boiled over into heated rhetoric, by the mid-20th century. A groundbreaking book entitled Evangelism and Imperialism in the Arab World was published in Beirut in 1953. Sharkey stated that the book's authors, Mustafa Kalidi and 'Umar Farrukh, "argued that Christian missionaries were the most powerful and dangerous agents of Western imperialism … . They maintained that religious motives were secondary—or even a cover—for missionaries who, as products of the materialistic West, were likely to worship steel, gold and oil more than God."

Many similar polemics followed, as Sharkey demonstrated. "A standard refrain is that 19th and 20th century Christian missionaries were direct heirs of the Crusaders … . Having failed to defeat the Islamic world militarily, the argument goes, Christians switched tactics and turned toward evangelism, aiming instead to achieve political goals through the conquest of souls … . As a series of Christian culture wars against Islam, the Crusades continued into the late 20th century under various guises. [Muslim critics] point to the growth of Evangelical radio networks and broadcasting media." There was a resurgence of this kind of literature in the 1980s and 90s, Sharkey asserted.

Many Christians have responded to such opposition by rethinking their perspective.

"As we approach Muslims today, they need to feel we appreciate much of their history," wrote Ralph D. Winter in the November/December issue of Mission Frontiers. Unfortunately, he pointed out, "we hear about Muslim atrocities down through history and they hear about Christian atrocities down through history." To counteract this tendency, he urged his readers to consider a quote from The Age of Faith, by noted scholar Will Durant: "For five centuries, from 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, order and extent of government; in refinement of manners; in standards of living; in humane legislation … in literature, scholarship, science, medicine and philosophy."

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
Roman Catholic soldiers conquer
Constantinople in 1204, unleashing a
savage orgy of slaughter, rape and
plunder on Eastern Orthodox believers.

"Understanding Islam begins with recognition of its diversity," wrote Calvin E. Shenk in "Witnessing in Love," from the Spring 2004 edition of Beyond Ourselves. Although terrorism, he continued, "is the most dramatic and visible response from Muslims against the "Christian West," it is only one of the competing currents of Muslim social, political and religious life. The fact is, revival of Islam as a religious and political force has produced the tension between Muslims who wish to promote a moderate Islam and those who support a more aggressive Islam."

In recent years, missions agencies have been changing their approach to Muslims.

In "Christian Missions and Islamic Da'wah," from a recent issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Todd M. Johnson and David R. Scoggins indicated that "today, social betterment is almost always an essential aspect of mission. Very few of these missionaries are in the Muslim world simply planting Christian churches." Further, "increasingly, Muslim culture is seen as a bridge to Christianity and not an obstacle. A robust literature exists today on radical contextualization of the Christian gospel among Muslims—such as new believers in Christ continuing to meet in mosques on Fridays, just as 1st century converts from Judaism met in synagogues."

Dedicated Muslims, the authors pointed out, are still determined to resist Christian outreach. They also engage in their own evangelistic enterprise—or 'da'wah,' an Arabic word meaning propagation and defense of their faith; however, their approach differs markedly from that of most Christian missionaries. "Muslims almost never travel to other countries en masse in the manner of Christian missionaries. Instead, they send money or a few charismatic or organizationally skilled leaders to Muslim groups in other countries, whom they assist primarily in bringing a revitalized Islam to local nominal or folk Muslims."

Revisiting Christianity's 'Holy Wars'
The capture of Antioch
by the crusaders, in 1098.

Reconciliation Walk

Christians have learned from the grotesque tragedy of the Crusades. In 1995, the Reconciliation Walk was launched; over the next few years, Christians retraced the route of the crusaders, offering an apology to Arabic people. The statement read, in part: "The Crusaders lifted the banner of the cross above your people. By this act they corrupted its true meaning of reconciliation, forgiveness and selfless love … . We deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of Christ by our predecessors."

A more strongly-worded declaration, still posted at, was widely circulated during the Islamic holy season of Ramadan in 1996. Doubtless, it sums up the feelings of many contemporary Christians:

"The Reconciliation Walk in the footsteps of the Crusaders [began] 27 November 1995, [which] was the 900th anniversary of Pope Urban II's awful call to Western Christianity to march to free the Holy Land from the 'unbelievers.' An initially eager troop, believing that they would prepare the way for the Messiah by liberating Jerusalem, set off from Cologne. The crusading armies soon became a pack of brutal plunderers destroying everything in their path. When they took Jerusalem on 15 July 1099, they viciously murdered all the Jews and Muslims, carrying a cross in one hand and a sword in the other—and Satan celebrated one of his greatest triumphs: he had made the Church sin in God's name."

The Reconciliation Walk yielded some distinctly positive results. For a Change, published by the British-based Initiatives of Change organization, featured a description of one particularly poignant 1998 encounter:

"John Kittrell of Dallas, Texas, went to Lebanon as part of a message team … . He handed the Arabic version of the walk's message of apology to a man on the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut. 'He placed the palm of his right hand on the message page, then put his hand over his heart,' says Kittrell.

"'He said something in Arabic that I couldn't understand, and then he placed his hand on his forehead and then pointed it toward heaven. I took this to mean that he was taking the message into his heart and mind, and to God. I felt myself start choking up with tears at his incredible acceptance of my apology. It so obviously meant more to him than I will ever be able to understand, and I am thankful to God for the opportunity to have experienced that.'"

David F. Dawes lives in Vancouver and is an associate editor of BC Christian News. He has edited a wide variety of articles dealing with marriage and other family-related issues.

Originally published in B.C. Christian News, August, 2005.




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