February 11, 2013, was a historical day. On that day Benedict XVI announced his decision to resign. Yet not everybody knows that the Pope made this announcement in the course of a public consistory summoned for the canonization of Blessed Antonio Primaldo and his companions from Otranto, who died martyrs’ deaths at the hands of the Turks, having refused to deny their faith in Christ and convert to Islam. Clement XIV beatified the martyrs of Otranto with a decree in 1771, but it was Benedict XVI who officially proclaimed them martyrs for the faith. As for their canonization, it was made possible after the official recognition of a miracle obtained through their intercession: the healing of an Italian nun affected by cancer. It is of great significance that the first saints proclaimed by Pope Francis are Christians killed by Muslims out of hatred for the Christian faith.


The Muslim Empire on the European Border

Early in the 14th century a Turkish tribe established an emirate in Anatolia, called Osman after the name of the first sovereign, the founder of the Ottoman dynasty. The emirate spread rapidly in Anatolia, incorporating the Byzantine regions and part of Bulgaria and Serbia after the battles of Kosovo Polje and Varna. In 1453 Mohammed II, at the head of an army of 260,000 soldiers, seized Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of the Eastern Roman Empire was the most dramatic moment in the history of Eastern Christianity, because it involved the end of the ancient and flourishing Eastern Churches. The Ottoman sultan became so powerful that he decided to continue the expansion of the empire to the west, going as far as to seize Rome itself (he intended to turn St. Peter’s Basilica into a stable for his horses!). In June 1480 the Ottoman fleet, which had been laying siege to the Isle of Rhodes, bravely defended by the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, set sail for the harbor of Brindisi in the Adriatic Sea. It was a fleet made up of ninety galleys carrying up to 18,000 soldiers: it was under the command of Ahmed Pasha. The sultan was planning to conquer Southern Italy and then Rome, the Pope’s seat, after seizing the harbor of Brindisi, a harbor of strategic importance. Owing to strong winds, the Ottoman fleet could not reach Brindisi and had to stay put near the harbor of Otranto, 40 miles south of Brindisi. (Otranto was well known for the mosaics of its cathedral built in the 11th century; it was from Otranto that crusaders sailed to Jerusalem. Also, in 1219 St. Francis stopped there on his way back from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.)

The Siege of Otranto

When the Ottoman fleet reached Otranto on June 28, the town was guarded by a garrison of 400 soldiers. The commander soon asked the king of Naples to send reinforcements. Unfortunately, no reinforcements arrived and the soldiers fled from the town, leaving the inhabitants undefended. These found shelter inside the walls of the castle, where they defended themselves from the attacks of the Turks who bombed the town with big stone balls. The Turks eventually opened a breach and entered the town on August 12. They thus began to massacre the population; the main door of the cathedral, where Archbishop Stefano Pendinelli was waiting for his murderers wearing his vestments and holding the crucifix in one hand, was knocked down. The archbishop exhorted the Turks to convert, but in reply they cut off his head, saying that from now on the town would be under Muslim rule. The following day Ahmed Pasha gathered all of the male survivors above the age of 15, 813 in all, even though tradition has it that there were 800. He was accompanied by an apostate priest, Giovanni, who tried to persuade the prisoners to deny their faith in Christ and convert to Islam. Antonio Primaldo, whose name would go down in history, speaking on behalf of the people of Otranto, said: “We believe in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and are ready to die for him a thousand times.” Then turning to his fellow citizens, he said: “My brothers, we have fought for our country, our lives and our temporal sovereigns; now it’s time for us to save our souls for our Lord, who died for us on the Cross. Our death will gain us eternal life and the glory of martyrdom.”

Martyrdom for the Faith

None of the inhabitants of Otranto converted to Islam; for their refusal they were sentenced to death. The following day the prisoners were transported in chains to the nearby Colle della Minerva, nowadays called Martyrs’ Hill. All of them were beheaded with a big scimitar on a block of stone, now preserved in one of the altars of the cathedral. An eyewitness, a certain Francesco Cerra, recalled those dramatic moments, bearing testimony in the course of the beatification cause 59 years later (he was 79 at the time). Cerra referred to a miraculous event: after his head was cut off, Primaldo stood up until all his companions were beheaded. One of the executioners was so struck by this prodigious event that he converted to Christianity, for which he was impaled.

The martyrs’ corpses stayed unburied on the hill for more than a year until September 13, 1481, when Otranto was recaptured by the army of Prince Alfonso of Aragon, the son of the king of Naples. Their mortal remains were taken to the cathedral, where a chapel was built to the right of the main altar; their bones are now preserved in this chapel. The block of stone on which the martyrs were beheaded is located inside the altar, on which stands a statue of the Blessed Virgin.


John Paul II on the martyrs of Otranto

In 1980, on the 500th anniversary of the martyrdom of the 800 inhabitants of Otranto, John Paul II went on pilgrimage to this town situated on the Southern Adriatic Coast. On Sunday, October 5, he celebrated a solemn Mass on Martyrs’ Hill; during this Mass the Holy Father gave a homily on the importance of martyrdom in Christian doctrine. This is what he said: “The truth on martyrdom is expressed with great profundity and transparent simplicity in the Gospel. Christ does not promise success or material prosperity to His disciples; He does not propose any ‘utopia,’ as is often the case in the history of human ideologies. All He says is: ‘They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you’ll be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake’ (Luke 21:12). From the very start and through the centuries, the essence of martyrdom has been linked to Jesus’ name. Christian believers who in the course of history have endured terrible suffering inflicted on them with cruelty, and who have been put to death out of hatred for the Christian faith, are referred to as martyrs. Those who have borne special witness to Christ through the acceptance of suffering and death are called martyrs. Showing His disciples the suffering which they will have to endure in His name, Jesus says: ‘This will be your opportunity to bear testimony to me’ (Luke 21:13). Eight hundred disciples of Christ bore this testimony five hundred years ago, accepting death for His sake.”


The Martyrdom of Christians Continues

Unfortunately, the martyrdom of Christians for their faith is not a thing of the past, as many of them still suffer persecution in Jesus’ name, as they did centuries ago. This happens in countries which are still under Communist rule (China, North Korea and Vietnam), in many Muslim countries and countries with a Muslim majority, but also in the West, where persecution has become less direct, but more “sophisticated.”

The rise of ever more radical and fanatical organizations gives cause for concern. These include not only Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, but also groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, whose coat of arms features scimitars like those used for beheading the martyrs of Otranto, and is greatly influential in Egypt and other North African countries and the Middle East. So nowadays, in the era of democracy and human rights, we cannot forget those of our brothers in faith who face persecution. This necessity is all the more compelling considering the silence of world media (let us not forget that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in today’s world). In his homily on the martyrs of Otranto, John Paul II reminds us of our task: “Being spiritually close to all those who suffer persecution for their faith is a special duty for all Christians, according to the tradition of early Christianity. There is more to it: it is a form of solidarity due to people and communities whose basic rights are violated or even trampled on. We must pray the Lord for their persecutors, repeating Christ’s invocation on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ Let us therefore remember Christianity’s modern-day martyrs. Let us thank God that they passed their test. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to give strength to those who have yet to go through these trials.”

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