Martyr of the Week: Eastern Christians during the Crusades

As a reminder, for Lent I wanted to explore a bit of a darker part of our Christian heritage and I’m going to look back to a few examples when fellow Christians were killed by other Christians. The goal of this exercise is to help me and you examine our hearts and see where we may have felt similar towards other brothers and sisters in the faith.

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.”
Matthew 5:21-22 (CEB)

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, 1840.

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, 1840.

The issue I want to explore today is not a specific martyr but an event in Christian history that lead to the deaths of many Christians at the hands of other Christians all under the guise of being sent by God to retake the Holy Land.  Of course I’m talking about the Crusades, one of the (in my opinion) most lamentable parts of our Christian heritage.  The Crusades began around 1095 promoted by Pope Urban II as a “Just War” willed by God to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims and lending assistance to the Eastern, Byzantine Empire who had requested military support against invading Seljuk Turks. What would then transpire over the next two hundred years were repeated crusades for various reasons, almost all justified by the Church, that resulted in the deaths of numerous Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians at the hands of Christians from the West.  The Crusaders were often promised complete remission of sins for taking up arms and were considered “Knights for Christ” or “The Faithful of Saint Peter”.

One of the many crusades I would like to highlight is the Fourth Crusade that began around 1202. This crusade was called for by Pope Innocent III and was focused on retaking the Holy Land again. The First Crusade had been successful in taking the Holy Land and Jerusalem and European style kingdoms were set up to defend what was conquered.  Eventually, Muslims under the leadership of Saladin reconquered most of what was occupied by the Crusaders including Jerusalem.  Most of the other Crusades had been considered “pilgrimages” and the armies traveled by land from Europe to the East. As more crusades were called, it became politically and militarily difficult to pass through lands where Crusaders had previously traveled as their actions and intentions raised  suspicion and ire amongst the locals. Instead for the Fourth Crusade the Pope and Crusaders sought the assistance of Venice and their boat building expertise to ferry the Crusaders to Egypt where they would begin the offensive against the Muslims.  Venice agreed and the Crusaders began to travel to Venice so they could be ferried to Egypt.

Things began to unravel quickly.  Fewer crusaders than expected showed up along with less financial support.  They could not afford the agreed upon amount that Venice required to pay for the passage to Egypt.  Venice would not allow the Crusaders to leave without a full payment and the Crusaders were unable to pay.  At a bit of an impasse, Venice saw an opportunity to use the gathered army to its advantage.  Wanting to expand is economic and trading dominance, Venice proposed that the Crusaders to fulfill their debts by attacking and intimidating other port towns and using what was captured in the attacks to help pay back Venice.  Pope Innocent III had tried to encourage the Crusaders against attacking other Christians, but the message was never effectively delivered and anyone who was considered to be hindering the Crusader army was generally considered an enemy. The Crusaders, without much other choice, agreed and began a campaign that would ultimately end with the siege and sacking of Constantinople in 1203-04.  Constantiople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the East and center of the Eastern Orthodox church.  While the number of people killed in the battle is tough to determine in ancient battles what is known:

  • The Library of Constantinople was destroyed
  • Many ancient Greco-Roman and medieval Byzantine works of art were either stolen or destroyed.
  • Churches and monasteries were destroyed, defiled and looted.
  • Orthodox nuns were violated and Clerics were killed

As to the desecration of the Haigia Sophia (a sort of St. Peter’s Bascilica in the East) Wikipedia quotes Speros Vryonis in Byzantium and Europe who notes:

The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels.

While Pope Innocent III did excommunicate the Crusaders for their actions, when they returned to Europe with the spoils of war he rescinded the excommunication. The Crusaders were honored for their triumph and their spoils of war added to the riches in Rome.  The Crusaders “triumph” was celebrated as unifying the once divided Churches when in reality it only separated them further. Tensions were already high between the Greek Eastern Church and Latin Western Church. The sacking of Constantinople and the associated desecration of Christian art, worship spaces and killing of clergy cemented the division that still exists to this day.

I pray that we as a Church are never tempted to use violence as a means to reunite or redeem what we perceive as lost.  I pray that we would see the beauty in the differences of various Christian traditions.  I pray that we would always act in grace, love and mercy towards our fellow brothers and sisters in the Church, even if we think them outside “orthodox” teaching.

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2 thoughts on “Martyr of the Week: Eastern Christians during the Crusades

  1. Pingback: Martyr of the Week: John Wycliffe & Jan Hus | Fascinating Mystery

  2. Pingback: Martyr of the Week: Feliz Manz | Fascinating Mystery

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