VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has canonized more than 800 15th-century martyrs who were killed after refusing to convert to Islam. The “martyrs of Otranto”, whose identities are largely unknown, were killed on a hill outside the south-east Italian town by Ottoman Turk invaders in 1480.
Along with two Latin American nuns, they became the first saints to be proclaimed during Pope Francis’s fledgling pontificate on Sunday, in a ceremony watched by tens of thousands in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
“As we venerate the martyrs of Otranto, let us ask God to sustain the many Christians who, today and in many parts of the world, now, still suffer from violence, and to give them the courage to be devout and to respond to evil with good,” said the pope in a homily that made no mention of Islam.
In 1480, after conquering Constantinople – modern day Istanbul – the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed II planned to invade Rome, and Otranto became his army’s port of entrance into Italy.
The local population fought back in a week-long siege, putting up a brave but hopeless resistance. When Ottoman soldiers finally overrun the town, they were ordered to kill every man over the age of 15 who refused to convert to Islam.
In an apparent attempt to avoid the move being interpreted as provocative, the Vatican said the martyrdom should be understood in “the historical context of the wars that determined relations between Europe and the Ottoman empire for a long period of time”.
Little is known of the individuals who were executed when they refused to convert. They are grouped together as the “companions” of Antonio Primaldo, thought to have been the first to die when, once the town had fallen to the Ottoman forces commanded by Gedik Ahmed Pasha.