These days, it’s commonly assumed that martyrdom for religious reasons is a feature of the radical end of Islam but it was once very much part of Christianity. I found one example in a Portuguese church of Franciscan friars who deliberately provoked their own martyrdom by journeying to Morocco on what can only be described as a suicide mission.
Christians seeking martyrdom in Morocco – why?
I was in Porto, Portugal a few years back in the church of Saint Francis when I saw a gruesome image of a Saracen beheading a Franciscan friar – and another lying on the ground without his head. Couldn’t resist a sneaky photo, which I’m sharing with you here.
All of which raises the question – how did these friars get in to this situation? Where were they martyred?
The book Saracens: Islam in the medieval European imagination is a good starter on the subject and its author John Victor Tolan gives some interesting detail.
The Orders of Friars Minor – Ordo Fratrum Minorum – was found in the early 13th century, just under a hundred years after the founding of the Templars. Saint Francis of Assisi took the view that the Muslims needed to be brought back to Christianity and his friars were theologically equipped for the task.
The trouble was, Tolan relates, they resorted to abuse as a primary approach – insulting the Prophet and seeking the ‘palm’ of martyrdom….which they got.
Tolan makes the point that Christians in the early days of the Islamic caliphate in Spain, four hundred years before, had also insulted Mohammad in order to die an honourable death and the Muslims had obliged. So the friars followed this largely unproductive example. In 1212, Francis tried to get to Morocco where he clearly hoped to be martyred but fell ill and only reached Spain.
However, this hostile approach proved unsatisfactory for the growing number of more intellectual Franciscans and as the century wore on, they tried to dispute on very serious terms with the Muslims.
Saint Francis himself seeks the martyr’s cross
Saint Francis however was not up for round table debates – he still wanted to go and tell the forces of Islam exactly what he thought and didn’t care much if he was slain in the process. So he joined the Fifth Crusade full of zeal and believing he could win over the heretics.
He was apparently captured by Egyptian soldiers, beaten badly and then presented to the Sultan whose main weapon against Francis seems to have been excessive kindness and bribery – he offered lots of lovely gifts which the ungrateful friar turned down as “so much dung”.
Francis egged on the Sultan to martyr him but the Muslim ruler refused to oblige. Fellow Franciscan, Thomas of Celano, who wrote up this story shared Francis’ discomfort at having to return home very much alive and un-martyred. So he concluded that God had something far better in store for Francis and was saving him for now. Eventually, the saint died a pretty painful death – a prolonged illness – and Thomas cheerfully noted that this was a kind of martyrdom.
Before dying, Francis was told of five Franciscans martyred in Marrakesh and this seems to have cheered him up enormously.