The Martyrs of Otranto: Beheaded For Their Faith

Pope Francis celebrated his first canonizations in the course of his Mass in St. Peter's Square last Sunday, giving the Catholic Church over 800 new saints. All but two (a Colombian nun and a Mexican nun) were the "martyrs of Otranto," who were beheaded for their faith after Turkish Muslims invaded their southern-Italian port city in 1480. In the pope's words, "They had refused to renounce their faith and died confessing the risen Christ." According to some historical records, while the 800 were being executed, a Turk by the name of Bersabei was inspired to convert. He too suffered martyrdom, impaled by his own comrades-in-arms.

Christians of all faith traditions have long been persecuted in many countries, but today in the Muslim world, where Christians are often the largest non-Muslim minority, the persecution is accelerating and spreading.

Pope Francis had met with the Coptic pope, Tawadros II of Alexandria, just two days before, and no doubt he was praying for the mounting number of Coptic martyrs in Egypt, with whom, he had said, Catholics are united in the "ecumenism of suffering." This would include the two killed and seven dozen wounded as they were leaving St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria on April 7 and also the four whose funeral had just taken place inside the cathedral, who had been murdered in a Muslim pogrom the previous day. It would also include those languishing in prison for their faith, such as Nadia Mohamed Ali and her seven children, all of whom were sentenced by an Egyptian court to 15 years' imprisonment earlier this year for converting to Christianity. Another Christian woman, Demyana Emad, a 23-year-old primary-school teacher, was jailed last week for "insulting Islam" in her classroom -- only the latest example of the Islamist government's blasphemy prosecutions, typically of Christians.

Pope Francis probably also had in mind the ten killed in a church bombing in Nigeria on the Sunday before the canonizations, May 5, and the thousands of other Christians slaughtered, many of them while they prayed in their churches, in recent years by the Islamist group Boko Haram and other Muslim militants there. Nigeria is the country with the most new Christian martyrs -- it is estimated that 900 Christians were killed there in 2012 for being Christian. These murders are largely carried out with impunity.

In Tanzania, meanwhile, a woman, a teenager, and a child were killed in a May 5 church bombing in the city of Arusha, three months after Catholic priest Evarist Mushi and Pentecostal pastor Mathew Kachira were shot and beheaded, respectively, by Muslim extremists outside their churches.

In Somalia, the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab shot and killed Fartun Omar on April 13. She was the widow of Mursal Isse Siad, a Christian convert who was slain for leaving Islam in December; as Morning Star News points out, her death leaves the couple's five children orphaned. Al-Shabaab is also thought to have murdered Ahmed Ali Jimale, a 42-year-old Christian pharmacist and father of four, as he stood outside his house in February. Last November, 25-year-old Farhan Haji Mose, a Christian convert, was beheaded, reportedly for leaving Islam. As Boko Haram has done in Nigeria, al-Shabaab has vowed to eradicate Christianity from its country and establish a sharia state.

While Francis was canonizing the new saints on Sunday, Saudi Arabia's press was reporting that a Saudi court had sentenced a Lebanese man to six years in prison and 300 lashes for encouraging a Saudi woman to convert to Christianity. The woman herself fled to Sweden with the help of another man, who was then sentenced to two years and 200 lashes. Saudi Arabia prohibits its nationals, all presumed to be Muslim, from converting to Christianity or any other religion and can punish converts with death for apostasy.

Abduction of Christians has become rampant in Syria. Among the many who have disappeared are Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, both of Aleppo, a Catholic priest, Father Michael Kayal, and innumerable laypersons. Some of these are known to have been killed; others, including the two bishops, are presumed alive, but nothing is known about where or in what conditions they are being held -- a powerful sign that no Christian is now protected by any force in Syria. On May 9, the adviser on Christian affairs to the governor of Nineveh, in Iraq, was wounded in an assassination attempt by Islamist suicide bombers, and his three bodyguards were killed. This incident adds to the toll that has driven out some two-thirds of Iraq's Christians, mostly Catholics, over the past decade.

Pakistan has a long and growing record of Christian martyrdom as well, with one of the most prominent examples being Shahbaz Bhatti, the former minister of minority affairs, who was murdered two years ago after he defended the Christian Asia Bibi, who herself is still imprisoned on death row for blasphemy against Islam. (Bhatti's murderer remains at large.) The latest anti-Christian violence was a pogrom, triggered by yet another blasphemy accusation, against the St. Joseph neighborhood of Lahore on March 9; church sources report that over 300 houses, 18 shops, and two churches were destroyed or damaged by fires set by the large mob, while the police stood by and watched the rampage.

In Iran, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds dual American and Iranian citizenship and who converted to Christianity, is currently serving time for "threatening the national security." In April, Morocco's Higher Council of Religious Scholars published a fatwa calling for the death penalty for apostates from Islam, signaling a new turn for this reputedly moderate Muslim country. In Libya earlier this year, an Egyptian Christian was tortured to death by security forces for evangelizing, and a number of his co-religionists were deported. There are many other examples.

The religious violence against Christians is intensifying in Muslim-majority countries as Islamism -- a political ideology based on the primacy of Islam -- is empowered by those countries' governments and through the spread of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. By recognizing the Otranto martyrs as saints and hence models for the faithful, the Vatican is preparing for this. At Sunday's canonization ceremony, the pope explained: "As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, at this time in many parts of the world, continue to endure violence, and give them the courage of fidelity to respond to evil with goodness."

Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson Publishers, March 2013).

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