By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi and Muslim Sultan Al-Kamil — alleged enemies in the midst of the Fifth Crusade — met in an effort to build peace.
Nearly 800 years later, with violence erupting over religious beliefs, racial tensions and culture, Christians and Muslims have come together to bring the story to life on film.
The Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton were on the frontlines of an effort to bring “The Sultan and the Saint” to film. About a year ago, the sisters gave an undisclosed amount of money to help finance the Unity Productions Foundation film. On Nov. 12, the movie premiered at a theatre in Washington, D.C.
Sister Anne Martin Phelan said, “Our investment in building peace between Christians and Muslims is of major importance and one of the most profound endeavors in which the Clinton Franciscans have participated.”
Sr. Phelan and Sister Marilyn Shea attended the premiere and had the opportunity to mingle with a diverse group of producers, actors and fellow benefactors. Sr. Phelan said, “Many people expressed appreciation for our sponsorship of the project… especially Muslim attendees.”
In November 2015, UPF’s development director, Jawaad Abdul Rahman told The Catholic Messenger, “We feel that the narrative that you sometimes hear that pits these two largest faith communities against each other is dangerous and wrong-headed. In the story of St. Francis and Sultan Al-Kamil, we hope to give voice to the billion-plus Muslims and Christians who want to live together peacefully, without changing their core beliefs or principles.”
The film features dramatic reenactments and interviews from scholars. It is narrated by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons.
Sr. Shea said she had been anxious to see the film, which did not disappoint. “Because the story is told from the Muslim point of view, my reaction to the film included a new understanding of what it must have been like for the Muslims under siege in this camp at Damietta, Egypt. I was faced with the stark reality of the violence undertaken in the name of Christianity. I already knew the story of how St. Francis had the courage to go into the enemy camp hoping to speak directly to the Sultan, even at the risk of being killed. In the film, we learn that the Sultan, too, wanted peace, but his offer of peace terms was rejected. It forced me to accept the fact that we know only a portion of the truth. If we are to know a greater truth, we need to be open to hearing from those who are different from ourselves. Although we do not know exactly what took place between Francis and Al-Kamil, they undoubtedly shared their experience of God and gained a new respect for one another.
“The example of these two men highlights the need we have for respectful dialogue today if we are to bridge the misunderstandings, fear, and even hatred that often exist between people of different beliefs, cultures, or experiences.”
Unity Productions Foundation is organizing premiere screenings of “The Sultan and the Saint” in cities across North America, according to www. sultanandthesaintfilm.com between now and April 2017. A premiere at Wehrenberg Theatres in Des Peres, Mo., near St. Louis, will take place Dec. 11.
Once the film is released on DVD, the sisters plan to use the film to facilitate discussions between people of diverse backgrounds, Sister Marilyn Shea, CHM, said.