First, the historical facts: a long “train of abuses”, to borrow Jefferson’s phrase, preceded the launching of the First Crusade in 1096. Since its very inception, Islam had waged an unremitting war against Christianity.
It conquered and subjugated centuries-old Christian societies in the Middle East and North Africa. After sweeping through France, the Muslim advance was finally checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.
Following this, Muslim aggression against Christians continued in southern Italy, with the conquest of Sicily in 827. Resistance to these repeated acts of aggression was not characterized as a “crusade”, but simply necessary self-defense.
Over the next centuries, the Seljuq Turks, who converted to Islam, waged war against the Eastern Christian Byzantine Empire.
At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turks wiped out the Byzantine army, leaving Emperor Alexius Commenus helpless before a relentless and determined foe. Not long after this, he sent envoys to Pope Urban II pleading for military aid.
The Council of Clermont was called by the pope in 1095, in which he addressed the clergy, knights, and commoners who had assembled. To the knights especially his words were both reproving and encouraging:
You, the oppressers of children, plunderers of widows; you, guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christian blood — as vultures smell fetid corpses, so do you sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly. Verily, this is the worst way, for it is utterly removed from God! if, forsooth, you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood, or advance boldly, as knights of Christ, and rush as quickly as you can to the defence of the Eastern Church. For she it is from whom the joys of your whole salvation have come forth, who poured into your mouths the milk of divine wisdom, who set before you the holy teachings of the Gospels.
What was at stake was nothing less than the preservation of Christianity, and the civilization which had, even if imperfectly, sought to embody its teachings in the world. This was also evidenced by the increasingly hostility to Christians still living in the Levant (the Holy Land), as well as those who went on pilgrimage; in 1009, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – in an act the Catholic Encyclopedia rightly calls a “fit of madness” – razed to the ground.
This was followed by an even broader campaign against Christianity throughout the Levant, culminating in the destruction of thousands of Christian churches.
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