Despite a 2000 request for “pardon,” widely interpreted as an apology to Muslims for the Crusades, by the late Pope John Paul II, the Vatican reopened the debate last week with a conference that characterized the wars fought centuries ago as defensive measures taken with the noble aim of regaining the Holy Land for Christianity, according to the London Times.

The conference, held at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, brought together scholars from around the world who were anything but apologetic for the series of wars fought by European Christendom over 750 years ago.

Italian historian Roberto De Mattei told the attendees the Crusades were “a response to the Muslim invasion of Christian lands and the Muslim devastation of the holy places,” noting the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by Muslim forces in 1009 that preceded the First Crusade called by Pope Urban II in 1095.

Crusaders, argued De Mattei, were “martyrs” who had “sacrificed their lives for the faith.”

Robert Spencer, the American author of “A Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam,” disputed the dominant notion the Crusades were “an unprovoked attack by Europe on the Islamic world.”

“Pope Urban II, who called for the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095, was calling for a defensive action – one that was long overdue,” Spencer told an interviewer with Catholic Online prior to the conference. “As he explained, he was calling the Crusade because without any defensive action, ‘the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked’ by the Turks and other Muslim forces.

“‘For, as most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George,’ Pope Urban II said in his address. ‘They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for a while with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them.’

“He was right. Jihad warfare had from the seventh century to the time of Pope Urban conquered and Islamized what had been over half of Christendom. There had been no response from the Christian world until the Crusades.”

According to Spencer, the beginning of centuries of Muslim aggression can be traced to A.D. 638 when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem. Thereafter, Christians were subjected to demands for money, crucifixions, massacres, destruction of churches, denial of the right to teach their own children and forced conversions.

There were Crusader atrocities, agreed Spencer, pointing to the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099, but, he argued, it was not extraordinary.

“The Crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem was a heinous crime – particularly in light of the religious and moral principles they professed to uphold,” said Spencer. “However, by the military standards of the day, it was not actually anything out of the ordinary. In those days, it was a generally accepted principle of warfare that if a city under siege resisted capture, it could be sacked, and while if it did not resist, mercy would be shown. It is a matter of record that Muslim armies frequently behaved in exactly the same way when entering a conquered city.

“This is not to excuse the Crusaders’ conduct by pointing to similar actions. One atrocity does not excuse another. But it does illustrate that the Crusaders’ behavior in Jerusalem was consistent with that of other armies of the period – since all states subscribed to the same notions of siege and resistance.”

While the capture of Jerusalem is often portrayed as the beginning of Muslims’ mistrust of the West, Spencer said it would be more accurate to see it as the “start of a millennium of anti-Western grievance mongering and propaganda.”

The enduring grievance, real or imagined, is seen in Osama bin Laden’s claim to be leading a latter-day “jihad against the Jews and Crusaders.” In the past, the al-Qaida leader has referred to his organization as the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” and has called in a fatwa for “jihad against Jews and Crusaders.”

Jonathan Riley-Smith, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University, took issue with the portrayal of the Crusaders in the recent film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” calling it “utter nonsense” and accusing director Sir Ridley Scott of fueling Islamic fundamentalism by propagating “Osama bin Laden’s version of history.”

The script, he said, was “historically inaccurate. It depicts the Muslims as civilized and the Crusaders as barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality.”

While agreeing the Crusaders were sometimes undisciplined and committed acts of cruelty, it was true of the Muslims and troops, even now, in “all ideological wars.” The worst excesses of the Crusaders, Riley-Smith said, were generally reserved for the Orthodox and heretics. Those who seek forgiveness for the Crusades, he said, “do not know their history.”

“Westerners should not be embarrassed by the Crusades,” Spencer concluded. “It’s time to say, ‘enough,’ and teach our children to take pride in their own heritage. They should know that they have a culture and a history of which they can and should be grateful; that they are not the children and grandchildren of oppressors and villains; and that their homes and families are worth defending against those who want to take them away, and are willing to kill to do so.”

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