As we approach Holy Week, the thoughts of Christians around the world invariably turn to the Holy Land – to the places where Jesus taught and walked, and was eventually crucified. But today, these places are also inextricably linked to another period of history – one shrouded in doubt and misunderstanding: the time of the Crusades.

Much has been written about the Crusades over the centuries, but often, what is claimed as “factual history” is far from it. Anti-Catholic writers such as Martin Luther, Voltaire, and even more recent historians have greatly misrepresented the Crusades over the years. But recent unbiased historical scholarship, coupled with the release of large historical archives from this period, have helped to better illuminate a very complicated period in Christian history.


The term “crusade” has been used to describe various movements that developed roughly between 1000 A.D. to as late as 1700 A.D. For our purposes, we will confine the term to apply to military actions called for by the Catholic Church in response to Muslim aggression in historically Christian lands. They required papal endorsement and public ecclesiastical vows of the participants, with an indulgence (the forgiveness of temporal punishment due to already forgiven sin) granted to all who fulfilled their vows.

Most participants saw these missions as true religious pilgrimages to the Holy Land to aid and rescue persecuted Christians and recover stolen Christian lands, particularly the most sacred sites of Christianity – and an opportunity to repent and make restitution for past sins.

The historical backdrop to the Crusades provides some eye-opening insight for us. Prior to 600 AD, North Africa, Egypt, Pales­tine, Syria, Asia Minor, Spain, France, Italy, and various Mediterranean islands were all Chris­t­ian lands. But trouble begins in the early 600s, as Muslim aggression, led by its founder Muhammad, began to sweep across the ancient world, beginning with the Arabian Peninsula.

By 638 Jerusalem was captured as Muslims flooded into the Holy Land, conquering the most sacred places in Christianity and forcing many Christians to either convert, flee, or endure heavy taxation, persecution, enslavement, and even death.

Crusade expert Dr. Paul Crawford writes that “By A.D. 732 … Chris­tians had lost Egypt, Pales­tine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and south­ern France. Italy … (was) under threat and the (Mediterranean) islands would come under Mus­lim rule in the next cen­tury. The Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties of Ara­bia were entirely destroyed ... Those in Per­sia were under severe pres­sure. Two-thirds of the for­merly Roman Chris­t­ian world was now ruled by Mus­lims.”

This wave of aggression continued, as Islamic armies launched attacks throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, even attacking Rome in 846. In 1009, things escalated yet again, as Muslim caliph/leader Al-Hakim destroyed the Holy Sepulchre and countless other sacred Holy Land sites. Christian persecution also intensified, including attacks on pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. 1065 saw the massacre of thousands of German pilgrims (some historians estimate 12,000 killed) on Good Friday, just two days from Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Seljuk Turks (non-Arab Muslims) were advancing into the heart of eastern Christianity as well, within striking distance of the great Byzantine Christian city of Constantinople. To add insult, Nicaea (think Nicaean Creed) became the invaders’ capital, and Antioch also fell in 1084. By 1092 not one of the great Christian cities of Asia remained in Christian hands.

Enter Blessed Pope Urban II.

After 450 years of virtually unanswered Muslim aggression, Pope Urban II finally made the call in 1095: an armed pilgrimage to the lost Christian territories of the East. Citing the invasion of Christian lands, Muslim persecution of native Christians and pilgrims, and the looming threat posed to all of Christianity, he claimed there was sufficient, even necessary reason to engage in a defensive war.

His sermon that day clearly outlined his intentions: “(for) both the grace of the pilgrimage and under the protection of God, to exterminate wickedness and unrestrained rage of the pagans by which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive, and killed.” Carrying on, he added encouragingly: “it ought to be a beautiful ideal for you to die for Christ in that city where Christ died for you.” He then granted an indulgence to anyone who “for devotion alone, not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God.” This would be the ideal that would guide this and all successive Crusades.

But the question remains: were Christians justified in carrying out the Crusades? Is there such a thing as a “just war”?

St. Augustine argued absolutely yes. And the Catechism outlines 2,000 years of Christian teaching on this exact point (CCC 2258-2317), documenting very specific conditions that could allow for such a war.

But before we examine these, ask yourself a simple question. If your child was being threatened by someone, possibly even to the point of death, would you be justified in doing whatever you had to do to defend your child, even killing the attacker, if necessary? This, in very simplified form, illustrates the concept of a just war.

Catechism section 2309 boils the just war concept down to four specific points: “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation … must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

There is no question that all of these points were easily met with regards to the Crusades. But were there abuses in the pursuit of these otherwise noble intentions? Unfortunately, ye

When Jerusalem was finally retaken by the Crusaders in 1099, tragically some went on a rampage, killing many inside the city. Scholarly estimates range from several hundred to 10,000 killed, but the exact number is uncertain.

Similarly, through a series of complicated monetary and political twists, the 4th Crusade never even got to the Holy Land, but ended with the shocking sack of Constantinople. There were also sad cases of unsanctioned, anti-Semitic pilgrims attacking European Jews under the guise of the Crusades. These attacks were condemned and resisted by the Church, with some bishops even hiding Jews from these rogue “crusaders,” but the incidents are black marks against the Crusades nonetheless.

Such actions are deeply saddening, and can’t be defended on any level. But the instances of Crusaders failing to act according to Christian principles do not invalidate the Crusades themselves or the noble intentions they were called under: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).