Damietta is significant to Franciscans because it is the location in northern Egypt where St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil met.
Very much a man of his times, Francis Berndone of Assisi dreamed of becoming a knight during his youth. He came to realize, however, that the spirit of the living God was calling him to participate in a different mission: A crusade for peace and reconciliation.
In the summer of 1219 during the Fifth Crusade he made his way to the Crusaders’ camp at Damietta in northern Egypt. After the crusaders suffered heavy losses at the hands of Sultan al-Kamil’s army, a lull in the fighting gave Francis his chance to act. He crossed enemy lines, unarmed and without military escort. Probably mistaken for a diplomatic envoy he was led to al-Kamil.
Neither the sultan nor the saint got what he expected from the meeting. Francis discovered that the Muslim sultan was a cultured, gracious, warmly hospitable gentleman, with a lively intellect and a keen interest in religious debate. The sultan discovered that this particular Christian was, indeed, a holy man: Deeply spiritual, peaceful, humble, receptive and respectful.
For several days in the midst of war between competing cultures and religions, two men sat down together and searched for common ground. Their meeting changed their attitudes, altered their perspectives and influenced their subsequent behavior. Francis did not convert the sultan to Christianity, nor did the sultan convert Francis to Islam. But both men were transformed by the encounter.
It also left us with a legacy of respectful, intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. The Damietta Center commemorates this 800 year old tradition, bestowed on us by a Catholic Christian saint and a Sunni Muslim sultan.
The Damietta Center strives to provide a place where all community members will be known as brother and sister in the example of St. Francis.
The Damietta Center, in its mission, seeks to honor and advance the Franciscan tradition at St. Bonaventure University. The Damietta Center provides a threshold, a place that seeks to create an environment where respectful dialogue and a lively exchange of ideas might take place between individuals of different truths, cultures, ethnic origins and sexual orientation on the campus of St. Bonaventure University.