On May 11, Pope Francis announced the canonization of more than 800 Italian martyrs who were beheaded in 1480 by the Ottoman Turks when they refused to recant their Christian faith. Thousands of people were on hand at the Vatican's historic St Peter's Square as the pontiff announced the first canonizations of his pontificate. He did not, however, mention "'Islam" in his remarks nor the circumstances of the martyrs' demise. He also canonized two women from Latin America.
The Martyrs of Otranto were beheaded at the city in southern Italy when Ottoman invaders landed on the Italian peninsula bent on conquest. According to the Vatican's count, 813 Christians were beheaded by the sword-wielding Ottoman jihadis. Their canonization had already been approved by Pope Benedict XVI on the very day that he announced his resignation from the See of St. Peter.
When Francis spoke of the new saints, he focused on their committment to Christ rather than their rejection of Islam or the nature of their deaths. Not much is known about the Christians beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. They are believed to have been boys and men, aged over 15. They are called the "companions" of Antonio Primaldo, who is thought to have been the first to die when the town had fallen to the Ottoman forces commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha after a 15-day siege. It was then, in keeping with Muslim tradition, the men were given the choice of conversion or death. Speaking in 1980 on the 500th anniversary of the slaughter, Pope John Paul II was explicit in his tribute to the example set by the Otranto martyrs. According to John Paul, Antonio Primaldo declared: "We believe in Jesus Christ, son of God, and for Jesus Christ we are ready to die."
Pope Francis, however, immediately after his election, signaled his willingness to engage Islam in dialogue, leading some non-Catholic observers to express confusion over the apparent contradiction of the canonization of the Otranto martyrs.
"As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain the many Christians who, today and in many parts of the world, now, still suffer from violence, and to give them the courage to be devout and to respond to evil with good," said Francis in his homily. A statement released by the Vatican sought to frame the martyrs' death in historical terms, saying it should be understood in "the historical context of the wars that determined relations between Europe and the Ottoman empire for a long period of time." For its part, however, Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the brother of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, referred to the martyrs as "victims of Islam" in a headline.
Speaking to diplomats assembled at the Vatican in the days after his election to the papacy, Francis said that he intended to smooth relations with Islam, which had been ruffled by misunderstandings inter alia of remarks made by Pope Benedict in a speech he gave at Germany in which he quoted unfavorable remarks made by a Byzantine emperor more than 1,000 years ago about Islam. Muslims were incensed over the remarks, while some even resorted to violence over their misapprehension of Benedict's remarks and intentions. Francis intends to foster greater interfaith dialogue, particularly with Islam. Also, Francis caused much speculation when he chose to wash the feet of a young Muslim woman at a juvenile detention center in Rome during the traditional Maundy Thursday foot-washing ritual.
As he spoke of the new saints on Sunday, the pope focused on the Otranto martyrs' commitment to Christianity rather than their rejection of Islam or the nature of their deaths.
Little is known of the individuals who were executed when they refused to convert, but they are believed to have all been men aged over 15. They are grouped together as the "companions" of Antonio Primaldo, thought to have been the first to die when, once the town had fallen to the Ottoman forces commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha after a 15-day siege, the men were given the choice of conversion or execution.
According to Pope John Paul II, who visited Otranto in 1980 for the 500th anniversary of the massacre, Primaldo declared: "We believe in Jesus Christ, son of God, and for Jesus Christ we are ready to die."
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