The Martyrs of Otranto
As Pope Francis gave the church 800 new saints, Christians were being persecuted around the world.

Blood stains a portrait of Jesus Christ at a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria after a deadly bombing in 2011.


Nina Shea

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.