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Last Updated: Monday, 24 April 2006, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
The Crusades: A history of conflict

Osama Bin Laden has released a new audio tape describing Western policy towards the Muslim world as a "Zionist-Crusader war against Islam".

Bin Laden's statement re-awakens a long-running and controversial historical debate. Ill-judged Western references to the 200-year struggle between Christians and Muslims for domination over the Holy Land in the Middle Ages have inflamed sensitivities in the Muslim world in the past.

But what exactly were the Crusades, and what do they mean to us now?

THE HISTORY

The Crusades began in 1095 after Seljuk Turks took control of Jerusalem and began restricting access to Christian pilgrims. Pope Urban II called for a Christian army to retake the city from its Muslim rulers - sparking a 200-year period in which parts of the Holy Land repeatedly changed hands, until the last crusade ended in defeat for the Christians in 1291.

Urban II saw the Crusades not only as a way of freeing the Holy Land, but also of extending the influence of the Roman Church into the Byzantine Empire - today's Balkans and much of Turkey - through which the army would have to pass before reaching Jerusalem.

Glory and redemption

The first Crusaders, who set off in 1096, were a motley, and ultimately unsuccessful, bunch - peasants, from France and Germany, spurred on by the prospect of more freedom. Having pillaged and killed their way across Europe, they were vanquished by the Turks.

Six months later a more professional army, comprising French and Norman knights, set off. They successfully stormed Jerusalem in July 1099, making it one of four "Crusader states" in Syria and Palestine.

Serious trouble flared again in the early 12th Century when the Muslims took one of the other Crusader states in 1144, prompting the Second Crusade. However, its armies were almost wiped out in Asia Minor.

Knights
Knights held much power in the Crusades

Things stepped up apace when the Turkish armies came under the command of Saladin, a Kurd, considered the greatest Muslim leader of the time. He reconquered Jerusalem prompting the Third Crusade, jointly led by Britain's best-known Crusader, Richard I or Richard the Lionheart.

Although Richard and co failed in their prime goal - to snatch back Jerusalem - they defeated the Muslim forces at nearby Acre and reached a peace with Saladin over Christian access to the Holy City.

The Fourth Crusade, which started around the turn of the 13th Century, was a bit of a bungled affair, which ended with the warriors being excommunicated by Rome after they decimated the Catholic port of Zara on the Adriatic and fought Christians in Constantinople in 1204, destroying valuable treasures.

Things reached another low with the Children's Crusade of 1212, led by 12-year-old French peasant boy, Stephen of Cloyes, and a 10-year-old German boy, Nicholas. They mobilised an estimated 50,000 children between them but both child armies were betrayed and taken into brothels before leaving Europe or sold as slaves at Alexandria.

Another failed Crusade - the Fifth - followed, before Christians decided to switch tactics and try negotiation rather than brute force. The peaceful Sixth Crusade in 1228 restored Jerusalem to the Latin world and a 10-year truce was signed. But things fell apart when Muslims later reoccupied the city, prompting yet another Crusade in 1248. It collapsed when its leader, Louis IX of France, was captured. Two later Crusades both failed and the Turks took the last Christian stronghold in the region, Acre, in 1291.

So how are these turbulent events viewed today, with the hindsight of several centuries?

MUSLIM PERSPECTIVE

Traditionally, Muslims have not singled out the Crusades as a defining moment in their history. The wars have generally been more of a Western obsession.

"For most Muslims the Crusades were something they won but just another invasion among many in their history," says Dr Jonathan Phillips, author of The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople.

However, interest in the Crusades has been renewed in recent years, with Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri repeatedly referring to them in taped messages.

Masyaf Castle in Syria
Syrian castles became Muslim strongholds during the Crusades

The BBC's Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy says Osama Bin Laden and his associates probably believe a straight line links the Crusades with events of today.

"The basic idea is that these enemies have always sought to attack and despoil Muslim lands. In Bin Laden's eyes, this was true of the early Crusaders who invaded the Holy Land.

"It was true of the European colonial powers and the Zionists who settled in what became the state of Israel. And he sees today's latter-day crusaders, led by George Bush, as doing essentially the same thing," says our analyst.

Gaffes such as President Bush's use of the word "crusade" as he launched the war on terror in 2001 played badly in the Muslim world.

"What is clear is that Bin Laden is dealing here with imagined history rather than with the facts documented by historians," says Roger Hardy.

"He is appealing to a kind of Muslim folk-memory, sometimes with odd results. The Australians, for example, may feel that historically speaking they hardly qualify as crusaders.

"Nevertheless their role in helping East Timor gain independence from Indonesia was seen by al-Qaeda in that light - and used as one of the justifications for the Bali bombings in 2002."

JEWISH PERSPECTIVE

In northern Europe, the crusades crashed waves of violence upon the Jewish communities. Jewish people felt the brunt of the religious fervour that sent the Crusaders into the Holy Land, says Prof Anna Sapir Abulafia of the University of Cambridge.

Not only were they the most visible non-Christian community, says Prof Abulafia, but they also suffered because they generally weren't riding off on crusade themselves and weren't "part of all this non-Christian propaganda and hype".

In places like York, there was a massacre of the Jewish community in 1190.

"If you start preaching a Crusade and have accepted violence against non-Christians... that then evokes all kinds of violence against Jews."

The New Jewish Encyclopaedia calls the crusades a "prolonged and bitter ordeal" for the Jewish community, saying "thousands of Jews perished, and entire Jewish communities were wiped out. To this day, the Jewish liturgy contains prayers commemorating the martyrs of that dreadful period".

CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

The crusades made the news in 2000 for a simple reason: Pope John Paul II apologised for them. Sort of.

The pontiff made a plea for forgiveness of the past sins of the Church, saying, "We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth, and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed toward followers of other religions."

It's a commonly held view amongst moderate Christians that the Crusades are a shameful part of the religion's history, experts say.

However, some more conservative Christians side with the belief that the Crusades were a series of defensive wars against Islamic aggression.

Former presidential candidate in the US Pat Buchanan has said: "Now, we must also be ashamed of Crusades launched to recapture, in the name of our Lord, the Holy Land seized from Christendom by the armies of Islam."


SEE ALSO:
West is on a crusade - Bin Laden
23 Apr 06 |  Middle East
'Bin Laden' accuses West - excerpts
23 Apr 06 |  Middle East
Crusades film 'will help Muslims'
08 Apr 05 |  Entertainment
'Bin Laden blasts Iraq crusade'
20 Dec 03 |  South Asia
'Bin Laden' tape attacks 'crusaders'
16 Feb 03 |  Middle East
America widens 'crusade' on terror
16 Sep 01 |  Americas


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