Up until thirty years ago, the popes have been the most consistent, most implacable and most effective defenders against the Islamic onslaught. The change of direction from the post Vatican II popes have attempted to emphasize the good aspects about Islam (they venerate Mary for example). While this has led to a cultivation of cordial relations with the Muslim world, instead of achieving the goal of mutual peace between both societies, it has apparently only widened the gap.
Pope Francis in 2013 declared: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.” He has given the impression that Islam must be accepted as a religion of peace, especially after he took part in the “International Interfaith Meeting on Human Fraternity” at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2018. After speaking to the UAE’s ruling body as well as representatives of other Islamic governments, Francis co-signed with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the Document on Human Fraternity, which declares that “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”
Francis’ conciliatory tone towards the Islamic, spured by many priests, bishops, and even cardinals, dispels the notion that the Muslims who murder, rape or loot in the name of Islam has anything to do with their religion even though the perpetrators cite their religious texts that justify their crimes. For example, take the Quranic passage: “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture [People of the Book: Jews and Christians] who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who forbid not that which Allah has forbidden by His Messenger, and follow [adopt] not the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture.”—Sura 9, 29 This has also allowed revisionists to erase the history of violence that began with the inception of the Islamic movement, subsequently accusing anyone who makes reference to the historicity of Islam to argue the contrary an Islamophobe. The former also tends to raise heinous acts carried out by Christians, though they have nothing to do with Catholic doctrine or the gospels.
The present Vatican appeasement towards Islam was inadvertently initiated by St. John Paul II. In his attempt to legitimize Islam’s religious role in society, he not only kissed the Quran during a visit to Syria but was the first pope to visit and pray inside a mosque, namely the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria—formerly a church of Byzantine era—as part of a Christian pilgrimage since within the mosque there is a shrine believed to have the head of St. John the Baptist. There he stated: “For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness.”
The fact that the Vatican somehow “accepts” Islam not just gives Christianity and Islam a categorical equality but it also annuls the efforts of previous popes who had to fight against Islamic jihad, thereby preserving civilization. Popes were, in fact, formidable warriors against the Islamic threat, organizing Christian armies to confront Muslims on the battlefield, saving whole cities of Christians from a life of slavery, forced conversion, or submission under dhimmitude. Other popes sent spiritual armies out into the mission fields of the Muslim world with one goal in mind—convert them to Christ. Two popes actually led Christian armies into battle against their Muslim foes.
The Popes Who Combatted Against Islam
There have been 196 popes from Muhammad’s death until now (Honorius to Francis). Now it would take a very long time to go over the life, history and experience that each pope has had with Islam. However, make no mistake about it, not only is the Catholic Church the greatest defender against Islam throughout history, but the Popes of the Catholic Church were the greatest leaders in bringing Christians of all denominations together to fight against the Islamists of each age and, when followed, to bring Christians to victory over the Muslims. That is also to say that what you see happening today with Pope Francis is not only an anomaly but an almost 180-degree-turn of the popes actions and teachings over the past 1,400 years.
Pope Donus (676-678) is apparently the first pope on record who addressed the Islamic problem. When the Islamic conquests were taking place, many Christians fled their ancestral homelands in the Middle East to Europe and Sicily. Many of these people were monks because Islam has a particular dislike of them. He gave refuge in Rome to Nestorian monks—people who belonged to a sect condemned as heretical by the Church and were fleeing Muslim conquests of Syria.
St. Gregory III (731-741) During the Islamic conquests of the eighth century, the popes were intimately involved in both the spiritual and military struggle with Ishmael’s armies. St. Gregory II (715-731) prayed and called for Christians to take up spiritual arms against the Muslims and is credited with slowing the Muslim advance by his prayers and by those who answered his call to prayer. Gregory III continued the mission of his predecessor but also took up the military struggle against Islam when he petitioned and convinced the great Frankish general Charles Martel to fight the Muslims at Tours, France, in 732 in the “battle that saved Western civilization” from Islamization and drove the Muslims back over the Pyrenees into Spain and kept them there for centuries.
St. Zachary (741-752) Pope Zachary once stated: “As is well documented, wherever Islam goes slavery follows, and specifically the horrible institution of sex slavery, as that was the primary reason for it.” He noticed the increase in the slave trade with the arrival of Islam, and he realized that even Christians, especially those in Venice, were involved in selling other Christians to Muslims. Horrified at this act, he immediately banned Venetian and all Christian merchants from selling slaves to the Muslims, and not only that but he ransomed the slaves they were going to sell. His successor, Stephen II (752-757), recognized the continual threat posed by Islamic armies and petitioned the Franks for further action against Islam. Not only that, but he also worked with the Byzantines to coordinate a Franco-Byzantine alliance against Islam. This would be one of many precursory events to the Crusades. However, it was Pope Adrian I (772-795) who not only maintained St. Zachary’s anti-slavery position, calling the Muslims the “unspeakable race of Saracens,” but aggressively petitioned the Franks to continue in their fight against Islam and not relent in the least because of the absolute danger which it continued to pose.
St. Leo IV (847-855) Tensions remained between the Muslim and Catholic world for the next half century until it exploded in 846. The pope of that time, Sergius II (844-847) was severely criticized not because he was against Islam but because he did not take any precautionary measures to prepare militarily for the Muslim attacks in 846. After the death of Sergius, Leo IV not only performed spiritual war against the Muslims but he aggressively prepared militarily and, when the Muslims invaded again, he himself went into battle against the Muslims at the Battle of Ostia and helped lead the Catholics to victory.
St. Nicholas I (858-867) With the Muslims defeated in Italy and driven away, the Pope then began rebuilding Italy and preparing it for the next attack. This included military preparations as well as rebuilding the churches destroyed by the Muslims, as they were a common target of assault due to the hatred which Islam so intensely possessed for the Faith. His work was continued by Pope Benedict III (855-858) who directed repairs to churches damaged by the Muslims in the city of Rome. Popes St. Nicholas I and Adrian II (867-872), likewise followed in Pope Leo IV’s example and fought against the Muslims in southern Italy with Emperor Louis II.
John VIII (872-882) Unfortunately, while the popes were working very hard against Islam’s advances, there were many fellow Christians who literally did nothing. In fact, some were even forming alliances with the Muslims and fighting against fellow Christians. The popes were the first ones to combat this, beginning with John VIII, who banned Christians from allying with Muslims and even proved his example by fighting against those people. His successor in Marinus I (882-884) reinforced John’s ban between Christians and Muslims on alliances and even extended it to merely conducting any business with Muslims.
St. Adrian III (884-885) He had established alliances in the East and West to fight the Muslims. All of this work was very important, because by separating the Muslim alliances with unbelieving and even apostate Catholics, the popes purified the Church and prepared the way for a century of continual war against the sons of Ishmael. Adrian III summoned alliances with Frankish ruler Charles the Fat to fight the Muslims in Spain. Since his papacy was short lived, his successor Stephen V (885-891) worked with the Byzantines to coordinate naval assaults against Muslim targets and especially Muslim pirates, which resulted in a countless number of Christian slaves being freed from a sure life of horror.
John X (914-928) With the continued onslaught by the Saracens, Pope John X himself went into battle against the Muslims at the Battle of Garigliano of 915 and led the Church to victory. The aim was to destroy the Arab fortress on the Garigliano river, which had threatened central Italy and the outskirts of Rome for nearly 30 years. After a series of ravaging attacks against the main sites of the Lazio in the second half of the 9th century, the Saracens established a colony next to the ancient city of Minturnae, near the Garigliano River. Here they even formed alliances with the nearby Christian princes (notably the hypati of Gaeta), taking advantage of the division between them. John X, however, managed to reunite these princes in an alliance, in order to oust the Saracens from their dangerous strongpoint. The Christian armies united the pope with several South Italian princes and the Byzantine emperor. Later successors such as Benedict VII (974-983) pushed for missions to Muslims in Tunisia and North Africa.
Blessed Urban II (1088-1099) had called for the First Crusade. The eleventh century was the turning point for the popes. They had recognized and had been fighting militarily against the Muslims for four centuries at this point, but they realized the problem was much deeper. If the Islamic threat was to be effectively destroyed then the Islamic heresy had to be uprooted in its native Arabian land and, specifically, the Holy Land. Sergius IV (1009-1012) issued the first papal bull calling for the expulsion of Muslims from the Holy Land following the horrific persecutions of Caliph Al-Hakam in Egypt against the Christians. Alexander II (1061-1073) called for a crusade against Spanish Muslims, and his successor St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) planned for the First Crusade. However, this call would not be realized until the reign of Urban II, who issued the formal call at Clermont in November 1095.
Blessed Eugene III (1145-1153) called for the Second Crusade. As Europe entered the next two hundred years of crusades to the Holy Land, all popes played some role by the fact of the existence of the movement. However, some popes stood out more than others during this period. It was Paschal II (1099-1118) and Honorius II (1124-1130) who gave their approval to the Knights Templar Catholic military order. Eugene III called for the Second Crusade, Clement III (1187-1191) called for the Third Crusade, Celestine III (1191-1198) confirmed the Teutonic Knights as a crusader order, Innocent III (1189-1216) pushed for both crusades against Muslims in Spain as well as supported initially the Fourth Crusade, and Honorius III (1216-1227) instituted the Fifth Crusade. In hindsight, while most of them were unsuccessful, the Crusades did manage to save civilization.
Blessed Gregory X (1271-1276) tried to form a Catholic-Mongol alliance. In addition to forging crusades, the popes also worked aggressively to form alliances to fight the Muslims with non-European powers. Including Gregory X, five successive popes, Innocent IV (1243-1254), Alexander IV (1254-1261), Clement IV (1264-1268) and John XXI (1276-1277) tried to forge an alliance with the Mongolian hordes in order to create a unified front to confront the Muslims. Unfortunately, this crusade never materialized. Nevertheless, there were some good fruits, as this also marked the first instance of massive Catholic missions to the East. These men sent the first missionaries but in the years after the destruction of the crusader states in 1291 the Pope pressed even more aggressively for missionary work in the East. Two such popes were Nicholas IV (1288-1292) and Clement V (1305-1314). They worked extensively with Blessed John of Montecorvino, a missionary who converted over ten thousand Muslims and pagans to the Catholic Faith throughout China, Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran.
Callixtus III (1455-1458) instituted the ringing of church bells at noon so that Christians remembered to pray for the Crusaders to Belgrade and in perpetual memory of their victory in 1456. As the Church moved into the 15th century, the situation became more desperate in Europe with the rise of a new and dangerous power—the Ottoman Empire. The “Turkish menace” as it was called threatened to overtake all of Europe and posed an existential threat to Christendom. Realizing this danger, the popes stepped into action. Boniface IX (1389-1404) tried for a crusade to help the Byzantine Empire but the corruption of the emperors of that time proved to be its greatest obstruction. Martin V (1417-1431) organized a crusade to North Africa and successfully freed Christian slaves captured by Muslim pirates. His successor Eugene IV (1431-1447) assembled a crusade to Bulgaria and to Syria to help Christians there against the Muslims. Nicholas V (1447-1455) issued a papal bull saying that Christians are to attack Muslims and Islamic territories wherever they may be found. Callixtus III pushed for a crusade to Serbia, which prevented the Islamization of Belgrade in 1456 and it was he who instituted the ringing of church bells at noon, so that Christians everywhere would remember to pray for the crusaders as well as to remember this victory. His successor Pius II (1458-1464) attempted to convert Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (“The Conqueror”), but when that failed he continued the wars against the Turks, this time supporting the Albanian Muslim turned Catholic convert Iskander Beg, known as Skanderbeg. Thereafter, Sixtus IV (1471-1484) executed a brief crusade to Smyrna against the Turks, and following him Innocent VIII (1484-1492) tried to organize a greater action but to no avail.
St. Pius V (1566-1572) defeated the Muslims at the Battle at Lepanto. Following this period, the Pope’s actions directed specifically against Islam decreased because of another threat: Protestantism. The Protestant movement, which was funded in part by the Ottomans, was particularly devastating because it smashed the union of Christendom, which was already weakened, and thus set Catholics versus apostate Catholics against each other and prevented the Church from dealing effectively with the Ottomans. Nevertheless, the Turkish threat remained real, and in spite of the difficulties, the popes still had to and did successfully confront it. Adrian VI (1522-1523) continued to call for war against the Turks. When the Ottoman navy, the most powerful in the world at its time, threatened to overrun Christendom it was Pius V who called for a Catholic League to confront the Ottomans in 1571 at Lepanto, where they won a resounding victory that permanently disabled the Ottoman Empire’s absolute dominance of the Mediterranean.
Blessed Innocent XI (1676-1679) who defeated the Muslims at Vienna. While the fighting continued, it would be nearly a century later that the Turkish menace would again pose an existential threat to Christendom with the invasion of Eastern Europe pushing into Central Europe. Clement IX (1667-1669) worked against the Turkish naval powers, while his successor Clement X (1670-1676) helped fund Poland’s war against the Ottoman raids into Polish and Austrian territory. Yet it would not be until Innocent XI, who finally, having seen the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, convinced yet again a coalition of Polish, German, and Italian Catholics to confront and defeat the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna in which not only did they emerge victorious but the Ottoman Empire and Muslim world went into a period of decline for several centuries.
Pius XI (1922-1939) From the 18th century onward, there is little in the way of Catholic military action against the Muslims, since most of the work was spent in missions to Muslim lands. Innocent XIII (1721-1724) was possibly one of the last popes to militarily assist Catholics against the Turks, in this case assisting the island of Malta against Turkish attacks. But by the 19th century and with the conflicts in Europe, the popes were mostly reduced to diplomatic work with Muslims, such as Blessed Pius IX’s (1846-1878) and Benedict XV’s (1914-1922) attempt to assist the Christians in fleeing the Ottoman Empire in light of the impending Armenian genocide the Islamic Turks were planning that culminated in the murders of 1917.
With the abolition of the thirteen-hundred-year caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924, the political lineage of the Prophet of Islam was left unclaimed and consequently ended a centralized and universal Islamic body politic. Despite this, the Catholic hierarchy intuitively foresaw how interreligoius dialogue would lead to complacency on the part of the Christian West that would encourage Islamists’ goal of universal conquest. To this, Pope Pius XI warned in his Encyclical Mortalium Animos of January 6, 1928: “For which reason conventions, meetings and addresses are frequently arranged by these persons, at which a large number of listeners are present, and at which all without distinction are invited to join in the discussion, both infidels [Muslims] and Christians… Certainly such attempts can nowise be approved by Catholics, founded as they are on that false opinion.
Benedict XVI (2005-2013) In 1997, when the Pope was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and beginning his seventeenth year as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, otherwise known as the Holy Office, he told the German journalist Peter Seewald, “Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything…. One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of pluralistic society.”
As pope he pursued diplomacy with Muslim countries in order to seek some common moral ground. Yet with respect to Islam, he will always be known for his famous Regensburg Address in 2006 where he stated: “The emperor [Manuel II] must have known that sura 2, 256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the ‘infidels,’ he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
Benedict’s address set off a worldwide uproar and violence in the Islamic world, to which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (future Pope Francis) stated: “These statements will serve only to destroy in twenty seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years.” He added that Benedict’s statements “don’t reflect my own opinions.” Incidentally, Christian persecution skyrocketed in the Muslim world after Benedict resigned.
On a personal note, while appreciating the efforts of John Paul II and the present Bishop of Rome to encourage discourse with Muslims on socio-moral issues, such as defending life in the mother’s womb, marriage exclusively between male and female, and the like, Islam needs to be conceptualized in a coherent and meaningful manner. Unlike Christianity, Islam cannot be exclusively conceptualized as a religion from our Western perspective.
The present-day interreligious dialogue is based on the pretense that both Christians and Muslims have accepted and therefore share a common religious experience. If this is the case, we forbear to give sufficient attention to whether there are inherent, fundamental or categorical qualities with regard to Christianity that render it essentially different from Islam. And this is what the aforementioned popes who took on the Islamic incursion understood.
N. B. This article has been updated from the original 2019 one posted on the Thomas More Law Center website under the title 15 Popes whose Islamophobia Saved the Christian World from Muslim Takeover. I would also like to recognize Walid Shoebat’s The Popes Are The Greatest Warriors Against Islam In World History.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University.
* Sources not cited may be found in his book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.