VATICAN CITY – In his first canonization ceremony since he was elected a pontiff, Pope Francis on Sunday, May 12, proclaimed as saints hundreds of Italians, who were allegedly killed for refusing to convert to Islam.
“The Church proposes for our veneration a host of martyrs, who were called together to the supreme witness to the Gospel,” Pope Francis said in his homily cited by the Vatican Radio.
The pontiff canonized more than 800 Italians, who were allegedly killed in the 15th century during the Ottoman conquest for refusing to renounce Christianity.
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Their elevation was decided by Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI, who resigned in February for health reasons.
“The more than 800 Martyrs of Otranto, when faced with the choice of renouncing Christ or death, remained faithful to the Gospel,” the pontiff said.
“It is precisely their faith that gave them the strength to remain faithful.”
Sunday’s canonization is the largest number of Catholics to be elevated to sainthood at once in the history of the Catholic Church.
The names of the new saints were not revealed, except for Antonio Primaldo, who led the fighting against Ottoman forces in 1480.
A booklet handed out to participants said the "sacrifice" of the Otranto Martyrs "must be placed within the historical context of the wars that determined relations between Europe and the Ottoman Empire for a long period of time".
Christians believe that more than 800 Italians were killed by Ottoman forces during their conquest of the southern Italian city of Otranto in 1480.
They say that residents fought back in a week-long siege imposed on the city by the Ottoman forces.
When the city fell to the Ottoman forces, more than 800 kept their resistance, locking themselves up into the town’s Cathedral.
They were later captured by Ottoman forces and allegedly killed for refusing to renounce Christianity.
The pope also said that Christians were still being persecuted in different areas around the world.
“As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain those many Christians who, in these times and in many parts of the world, right now, still suffer violence, and give them the courage and fidelity to respond to evil with good.”
He did not mention any countries, but the Vatican has expressed deep concern recently about the fate of Christians in parts of the Middle East, including Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The pope’s canonization is expected to raise anger among Muslims over linking Islam to violence.
In 2006, former pope Benedict XVI quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor that everything Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) brought was evil and inhuman.
Benedict had repeatedly said the words did not reflect his personal views but stopped short of a clear apology to Muslims.
The pontiff’s remarks had strained relations between Muslims and the Vatican and prompted Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, to halt dialogue with the Church.Relations hit new ebb after the pope said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution following a church attack in Egypt.
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