Today, Christians quietly recall the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, Oct. 7, 1571. On that date the forces of Islam battled the Holy League in a crucial engagement at Lepanto, the modern day Gulf of Corinth. The date assumes larger significance in light of recent struggles between the West and Islamic jihad.

Sparked by the events like the Danish Cartoon Wars, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg and the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, a firestorm of renewed debate about the nature of Islamic jihad fills Western magazines and newspapers. Some maintain that the “war on terror” is the result of the Bush administration’s mishandling of the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Others have revised their thinking after five years.

Jonathan Last, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer Oct. 1 states, “It’s the West vs. the Islamic world, a clash that has never abated. … It predates America itself. It is a clash between Western civilization and the Islamic world.”

Last quotes Samuel Huntington, author of the 1993 article “Clash of Civilizations” and subsequent book of the same title. Huntington, a Harvard professor, wrote, “Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years.” Islam advanced under the sword conquering North Africa, Sicily, Spain, Portugal and parts of France. Twice “the forces of Islam laid siege to Vienna. For 1,000 years, Islam advanced and Christendom retreated,” observed Last.

But at Lepanto, Christendom did not retreat.

The Ottoman Turks had attacked and captured Christian strongholds throughout the Mediterranean. Their strategy was to control the sea, the trade routes, and thus crush European navies and commerce. In 1522, the Knights of St. John were driven from Rhodes by the Moslems. The year 1529 saw an attack on Vienna. By 1570 Cyprus was under siege. According to historian H.W. Crocker III, the Turks skinned the commander of Cyprus while the officer was still alive. More than 12,000 Christians were enslaved on Moslem galleys, lashed to the oars of Turkish ships that then threatened Europe. Feared as “invincible,” the Moslem fleet terrorized cities along the coasts of Italy and Greece.

The Turkish fleet, under the command of Ali Pasha, gathered at Lepanto (Gulf of Corinth). They were reinforced with lawless Corsairs under the command of the ferocious Moslem pirate, Uluch Ali.

Europe’s Holy League was an allied fleet of the Knights of Malta, Spanish, Venetian and Papal ships assembled by Pope Pius the V. The famous Don Juan of Austria, assisted by equally famous Andrea Dorian, led the Holy League. Maritime historians note that the Battle of Lepanto was the last of the great sea battles between oared vessels, and the largest battle since the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C.

Battle of Lepanto

An estimated 50,000 seamen and another 30,000 fighting men fought for Europe against a stronger, better armed Ottoman force of 330 ships. Ottoman ships flew flags emblazoned with verses from the Quran. Christian galleys were named “Resurrected Christ,” “Christ of Venice,” “Angel of Venice,” “St. Euphemia” and “Our Lady of Venice.”

As the day dawned over Lepanto, in Rome Pius V called the faithful to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. There he led the people to pray, asking God for a Christian victory. Throughout the morning the prayers of the people continued until, it is said, the pope had a vision of the victory and shouted, “Our great task at present is to thank God for the victory which He has just given us.”

The Battle of Lepanto sacrificed nearly 8,000 European soldiers who had fought under Don Juan. Yet, the Moslem forces suffered catastrophic losses; more than 25,000 perished. Don Juan rescued the 12,000 Catholic galley slaves. All Christendom rejoiced.

Within a decade, the Moslem fleet was rebuilt and the Islamic assaults again threatened Europe. For this reason few historians credit the Battle of Lepanto as a decisive military victory against Islamic forces. However, few deny the great psychological victory that Oct. 7, 1571, marks for Europeans who refused to retreat before the “invincible” flag of the crescent.

Jonathan Last of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “As Pope Benedict XVI explains in his book ‘Without Roots,’ the very concept of ‘Europe’ emerged as a reaction to the surge of Islam. Not until the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 did the Islamic tide recede definitively. For the next 300 years, Western civilization was ascendant and the Islamic world stagnated.”

Crocker, author of “Don’t Tread On Me,” wrote in the Oct. 6 issue of The American Spectator, “As we (or the better informed among us at least) celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto this Saturday, marking the date in 1571 when the navy of Pope Pius V’s Holy League turned back the Ottoman Turks from one of their recurrent jihads, it might be opportune to consider how the Islamic world has advanced politically over the last half century.”

Meanwhile, despite Islamic furor over his remarks at Regensburg, Benedict XVI has not canceled his plans to visit Turkey in November.

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