Downplaying the canonization of Christians martyred by Muslim invaders?

Downplaying the canonization of Christians martyred by Muslim invaders? May 19, 2013

In a recent post about an error in a story about a new saint, readers talked about the notable lack of media coverage of another set of new saints — Christians martyred by Islamic invaders.

One reader commented:

The mainstream media didn’t seem particularly interested in a group of Catholics martyred by Islamic invaders. Every brief account I saw gave only the information that those who did the killing were “Ottomans” or “Turks.” But how many Americans are historically savvy enough to know the Turks–or Ottomans- were Moslem–and that the killings were because the Italians wouldn’t convert to Islam?

Musn’t disturb the fiction that the only bad guys in the religious conflict between Islam and Christianity were the Christian Crusaders. In fact, repeatedly one reads in the media and some popular history books the false claim that Islam always respected the religion of those they conquered.

Another said:

I think it’s fair to move from the general to the specific and wonder how many American reporters are that historically savvy. While I’m certainly in the camp that is willing to have concerns about the fictions our media seems determined to maintain to protect what certainly appears to be a common “narrative,” the failure of the writer to connect the dots may simply reflect ignorance that there are connections. Given how things Catholic–and this Pope’s election, in particular–have been so routinely (and dare I say, predictably) covered lately, the focus of this article and its deficiencies is hardly surprising.

So I wanted to be sure to highlight an Associated Press story I came across in the Washington Post. It’s about the martyrs. What do you think of the headline?

Hundreds who refused to embrace Islam are new saints in pope’s 1st canonization ceremony

At first I thought it odd that their refusal to deny Jesus Christ was put in terms of a refusal to “embrace” Islam, but I think the headline writer was merely trying to make sure that Islam’s role in their martyrdom was highlighted. From the top of the story:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday gave the Catholic Church new saints, including hundreds of 15th-century martyrs who were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam, as he led his first canonization ceremony Sunday in a packed St. Peter’s Square…

Shortly after his election in March, Francis called for more dialogue with Muslims, and it was unclear how the granting of sainthood to the martyrs would be received. Islam is a sensitive subject for the church, and Benedict stumbled significantly in his relations with the Muslim community.

Wait, what? Benedict “stumbled significantly” in his relations with the Muslim community? From where exactly does the AP reporter’s opinion come? Why is it being included in the story? We have no idea because the reporter doesn’t substantiate his opinion in any way. What does it mean for this relationship to “stumble?” I honestly have no idea.

You might think that it would be good to mention that Christians are being beaten, ostracized, imprisoned and killed across the world and that their churches are routinely blown up or banned. Heck, even if those stories are routinely ignored or downplayed by major media, this might be the perfect hook for a healthy discussion on this relationship. Instead we’re told later in the story:

Christian churches have been attacked in Nigeria and Iraq, and Catholics in China loyal to the Vatican have been subject to harassment and sometimes jail over the last decades.

Christians in Saudi Arabia must worship out of the public eye because the ultraconservative kingdom does not officially permit churches and non-Muslim religious sites.

What a boring way to describe the persecution of Christians in today’s world. But even so, did Benedict “stumble” by condemning these atrocities? Is that what the AP reporter was trying to say? Because when I think back to, say, Regensburg, and the protests it brought — the firebombing of churches, killing of nuns, attacks on Christians, etc., I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Benedict stumbled. I mean, I know that some people think that, but others think that various Muslim groups stumbled in response.

Do these martyrs canonized by the Vatican have relevance today in Asia, Africa and the Middle East? Isn’t that a more important part of the story than an opinion about stumbling? The Inside Vatican scoops are one thing, but I’m more interested in how this canonization inspires or comforts the millions of Christians living with persecution worldwide.

Just some interesting overall framing for this story on what could have been presented in different, less hostile ways. Roman Catholic readers might pick up on a few more barbs in the piece if they read the whole thing.

Also, if you want to read actual, narrative details about these martyrs, here’s a good start. It’s a pretty amazing story, including:

Mehmed II was one of the most powerful and successful emperors in Ottoman Turkish history. He had taken the impregnable city of Constantinople in 1453, and had pacified the Balkan regions. By the 1470s Mehmed ‘The Conqueror’ was preparing a death blow to Europe. His fleet sailed the Mediterranean without challenge. Having taken ‘New Rome’ he set his sights on ‘Old Rome.’ In order to test the resolve of Christian Europe he sent an exploratory raiding party in 1480. Its target was the small maritime town of Otranto in far south Italy. During this expedition thousands of people were massacred, in what was really an attempt to instill terror into the inhabitants of the peninsula. After the city fell, its civil and religious leaders were either beheaded or sawn into pieces. Eight hundred men of the town were offered the choice between conversion to Islam or death. Led by the tailor Antonio Primaldi, acting as spokesman for the group, they were beheaded, one by one, on a hill outside town while their families watched.

The significance of their sacrifice was clear. Antonio and his townsmen had, in reality, saved Europe – their bravery gave Christendom time both to regroup, and to realize the gravity of the threat.

Nope, no modern relevance at all.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    A few things on this piece:

    1) Pope Francis didn’t give the Catholic Church hundreds of new saints — God did that. All Francis did was declare with certitude that they now stand before the Face of God.

    2) All of the stories I have seen on this have tried to make some kind of conflict between Francis and Benedict over this cause. When Benedict announced his resignation on Feb. 11, it was at an ordinary consistory of Cardinals called to get their consultation on canonizing the martyrs of Otranto and the other two who were canonized with them. So Francis had nothing to do with their being named as saints and reporters are making it seem as if he was somehow reluctant to do so because he doesn’t want to inflame Muslims. Unless they have some source material for that, they should stay away from that speculation.

    3) Reporters are still wanting to make a distinction between the “good” Francis and “bad” Benedict in other ways, so that’s why they keep bringing up Regensburg and conveniently forget that the Muslim response was so awful. But blaming Benedict for that seems to me to help perpetuate the stereotype of the nasty Muslims. Why not hold the Islamic community to account for that rather than saying Benedict screwed up?

    4) There’s an aspect of the story that the CWR report doesn’t include — the conversion of one of the Muslims. After Antonio Primaldo’s head was cut off, his body stood up on its own and took a position to the side of where the executions were taking place and the Muslims could not do anything to move it. His body stood guard until the last man lost his head. (This is not legend, by the way — there are four eyewitness accounts in the Acts of their cause.) One of the Muslims, Berlabei by name, saw what happened with Antonio and was converted on the spot. He loudly proclaimed himself a Christian and Mehmet immediately sentenced him to death — by impalement, a far worse form of death than beheading. The whole story is absolutely fascinating and has become a favorite of mine over the last few years.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The power of suggestion is a wonderful thing. It can make four crazy people believe a dead body stood up, could not be moved and a bunch of equally crazy people actually believe the story. That Antonio Primaldo was a brave man and a martyr is without doubt. That the story of his dead body standing up is nonsense is equally without doubt.

  • The downplaying is from the Vatican, too. The Pope spent more time talking about the two women do-gooder nuns he canonized than these men –whom he called “persons”– who were slaughtered for refusal to convert to Islam. The words Islam or Muslim never left his august mouth, nor were they printed in the booklets for the ceremony. The shameful dhimmi behavior is entrenched. If I were pope I’d make Our Lady of Lepanto a solemnity and I’d canonize Charles Martel. The contemporary Church is as fully enmeshed in Euroliberal culture as it once was in the feudal culture of past centuries.

    • JoFro

      I too noticed this! By the way, Our Lady of Lepanto is a solemnity that already exists – it is called the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and celebrated on October 7. It was formerly known as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory.

      According to Wiki

      “In thanks for the victory of the Battle of Muret in 1213, Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester built the first shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Victory.
      In 1571, Pope Pius V instituted “Our Lady of Victory” as an annual feast to commemorate the victory in the Battle of Lepanto. The victory was attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a rosary procession had been offered on that day in St. Peter’s Square in Rome for the success of the mission of the Holy League to hold back Muslim forces from overrunning Western Europe.

      Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary

      In 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the “Feast of Our Lady of Victory” to “Feast of the Holy Rosary”. This feast was extended by Pope Clement XI to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1716, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. Pope Pius X changed the date to 7 October in 1913, as part of his effort to restore celebration of the liturgy of the Sundays.”

      I’m still waiting for Charles Martel to be canonised – the man deserves at least that much. At least the Orthodox Church of Russia does not seem to despise its own warrior saints.

      I was surprised that the Pope never even mentioned once the word “Islam” or “Muslims”. Maybe I missed it.

  • Julia B

    Interesting article by John Allen on the beatification of a Sicilian priest who was assassinated by the Mafia for trying to get the people to resist them. This represents the revival of a category of martyr that has been in abeyance for some time. I’ve not seen any mention of this in the secular media. It is relevant to the push for Archbishop Romeroa, who was assassinated while saying Mass, to be declared a saint for being killed for standing up to a corrupt government.

    I had to re-set my password again to post this. grrrrrr