By Joshua Rhett Miller
A group of medieval knights created nine centuries ago to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land are now being referenced by a Mexican drug cartel and the self-confessed mass murderer of last week's terror attacks in Norway to "cloak the horror" of their own deeds, a medieval historian told FoxNews.com.
The Knights Templar were created in 1120 by roughly a dozen knights following the First Crusade, which left the area now known as Israel quite hazardous for Christians who fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem.
"The roads in that area, particularly in the roads of Jerusalem, were dangerous with Muslim raiders and general violence, and very often Christian pilgrims would be killed or robbed by Muslims," said Dr. Paul Crawford, associate professor of ancient and medieval history at the California University of Pennsylvania.
To combat that threat, Crawford, who has studied the Knights Templar for two decades, said the group was formed to use its military training and vast resources to protect the helpless pilgrims.
"This was an innovation of Christian society up until that point -- using military skills to protect the helpless," Crawford told FoxNews.com during a phone interview Wednesday. "It was a chivalrous concept; the powerful should protect the weak instead of exploiting them."
By the mid-12th century, Crawford said the Knights Templar became a major element of defense for the kingdom of Jerusalem against Islamic attack. But in 1307, Crawford said hundreds of Knights Templar in France were arrested by orders of Philip IV, king of France from 1285 to 1314. They were charged with dozens of crimes, from heresy to blasphemy to sodomy, Crawford said.
"Philip the Fair," however, had no authority to do so, as the Knights Templar answered only to the Pope. But by 1312, Pope Clement V had dissolved the Christian military order and its grandmaster was burned at the stake by Philip IV two years later.
Eight centuries later, Anders Behring Breivik, the man who confessed to last week's bombing and shooting attacks that left 76 dead in Norway, alluded to two other "cells" of his network, which he referred to in a 1,500-page manifesto as a new "Knights Templar." In the document, he describes being invited to join the group, which he said is dedicated to "anti-jihad" and claims members held meetings in London and the Baltics. Afterward, he said, the members vowed not to contact one another and to instead plan their "resistance" as individuals.
Halfway around the globe, in Morelia, Mexico, an organized crime group calling itself the Knights Templar has recently distributed 22-page booklets announcing its fight against poverty, tyranny and injustice. A copy obtained by The Associated Press depicts knights on horseback bearing lances and crosses, vowing an "ideological battle to defend the values of a society based on ethics."
Crawford said Breivik and the Mexican crime syndicate blamed for murders and drug trafficking are "grossly abusing" the ideals and glamour of the original knights.
"A drug cartel in Mexico for goodness sake and a lone murderer in Norway are trying to appropriate a glamorous and admirable image to cloak the horror of their own deeds," Crawford said. "In neither case would the original organization approve of what is being done and made of their memory."
Crawford said the "bastardization" of the Knights Templar likely stems from the original order's fascinating, sudden and violent end.
"It's natural for people to be interested in them and to be attracted to them," he said. "Because the fall of the Templars was so dramatic and so difficult to understand even at the time, it appeals as an event to the sort of person who is drawn to conspiracy theories and mysteries -- and even the occult."
The modern International Order of the Knights Templar (OSMTH) -- a Christian order with no ties to the church and an accredited United Nations non-governmental organization -- has quickly distanced itself from Breivik and the Mexican cartel. In a statement posted on its website, the organization deplored Breivik's "senseless acts" and reiterated its mission as building bridges worldwide for peace and understanding.
"Christ's message is one of love, understanding and tolerance of all peoples in the World," the statement read. "How Anders Behring Breivik so misunderstood Christ's message is beyond reason or belief … Mr. Breivik is NOT NOW and HAS NEVER been a member of OSMTH."
The grand commander of the order, U.S. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Bob Disney, told FoxNews.com the organization has entities in 16 countries and is in the process of finalizing four additional delegations. It also maintains permanent delegations at the United Nations in New York, Geneva and Vienna. Disney said OSMTH officials have not received any threats in response to the perceived connection to the Norway attacks or the Mexican crime syndicate.
Crawford, meanwhile, said he expects the message of the original Templars to continue to be usurped and used maliciously.
"Oh dear, I hope not, but it's been going on from at least the 18th century," he said. "It's not going to stop. The only thing that those of us who are Templar historians can do is to keep telling the truth. But there are these people who want a glamorous cover for their misdeeds, so we're stuck with it."