Pope Francis has a model for Muslim engagement in St. Francis of Assisi

(RNS) Just as many Catholics have connected Pope Francis’ humility and austere lifestyle with that of St. Francis of Assisi, those seeking clues on the new pontiff’s approach to Christian-Muslim relations see another example in the iconic namesake.

In a little known episode in 1219, St. Francis left the camp of the crusaders besieging the walled Egyptian city of Damietta and crossed enemy lines to meet with Malik al-Kamil, the young sultan of Egypt.

“I can’t believe that the choice of his namesake is only about deference to poor people, as important and admirable as that is,” said the Rev. William Hugo, a Capuchin Franciscan brother and priest in St. Joseph, Wis. “The story of Francis seeking out Al-Kamil would surely raise up in Pope Francis the desire to reach out and be in relationship with those suffering a separation or (who are) excluded.”

“We’re seeing the church interpret Francis in modern times as a bridge,” said Paul Moses, author of “The Saint and the Sultan,” a 2009 book which explores St. Francis’ pivotal engagement with Islam. “To Muslims ears, the choice of Francis for a name should sound good.”

Andrea Stanton, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, said peace was Francis’ motive.