May 4, 2001: Pope John Paul II visits Athens and makes apologies for the sins of the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204.
April 8, 1204, a combined Crusader army, on the way to establish a protected route to the Holy land, begins the siege of Constantinople, known as the Fourth Crusade. Over 12,000 Crusaders and 10,000 Venetians, encamped across the Golden Horn from Constantinople, began their assault, but were driven back by heavy archery fire and bad weather. By April 12, the weather improved, and a second assault began, brought across by Venetian ships, and eventually capturing several towers and establishing a base for further attacks.
About seventy Crusaders were able to get into the city, knocked holes in the walls to allow their fellow soldiers through, while the Venetians were able to scale the walls. The city began to burn, and Emperor Alexios V fled into the countryside.
The Crusaders and their Venetian allies looted and pillaged the city, stealing or destroying medieval Roman and Greek works and other religious artifacts. Great statues were melted down for their metal, and they continued to violate churches and other religious places, including alters. Women were raped, including nuns, and monasteries and convents were destroyed. Thousands of civilians were killed for no reason. In the end, over 950,000 silver marks were stolen, and the Latin inhabitants of the city began their own retribution, massacring more of their fellow Greek Christians. After the sack, most of the Byzantine Empire’s territories were divided by the Crusaders.
The reasoning for the attack was the revenge sought by Western Europe for the massacre of Latin Christians in Constantinople by the Byzantine usurper Andronikos Komnenos in 1182. Since that time, the two sides had an uneasy relationship. Whether justified or not, the Crusader’s attack on the world’s largest Christian city was not only controversial, but shocking and horrifying, and as a result, left open the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453. It also strained relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
However, on May 4, 2001, Pope John Paul II expressed sorrow for the Fourth Crusades in a letter to Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens. In April 2004, Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, formally accepted the apology of the Pope, stating that his acceptance came in the spirit of Pascha. “The spirit of reconciliation of the resurrection… incites us toward reconciliation of our churches.”