Canonization conundrum: The martyrs of Otranto

By Bryan Cones| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue

As might have been suspected, the canononization of almost 800 Italian men who were massacred in 1480 by Ottoman invaders has created a delicate diplomatic situation for Pope Francis. Cleared for canonization by his predecessor, the martyrs are said to have been killed for not converting to Islam; legend has it that their leader, Antonio Primaldo, remained standing after he was beheaded until all the rest of the men of the village of Otranto had been killed.

One wonders if there wasn't some politics involved in Pope Benedict's approval of the canonization of these martyrs more than 500 years after their deaths; many small Christian communities in countries in which they are only a small percentage of the population are suffering because of their faith, including in many Muslim countries. The Vatican has long complained that Muslims are free to worship in majority Christian countries while Christians are not afforded the same privilege in most Muslim majority countries. The martyrs of Otranto might be a kind of support for those Christians, as well as a statement about Muslim-Christian relations.

At the same time, highlighting these particular wartime atrocity seems a little problematic; the Ottoman attacks against Europe had as much to do with imperial expansion than with religion, and Christians lived peacefully under Ottoman rule (paying an additional tax, of course). More likely, Ottoman attacks against Italy were a retaliation for the centuries of crusading by European Christians against Muslim lands, as well as an opportunity for the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed II to expand his territory and enrich his empire.

I've no reason to doubt the story of the massacre of Otranto or the motivation of those who died there for refusing to submit--religiously or otherwise--to invaders. They suffered the fate of many who resist domination by a stronger imperial military power. But I wonder how their canonization now contributes to the attempts of many of heal the troubled history of interaction between Muslims and Christians; making the invasion of Otranto "religious" in nature is not, I think, a step forward.


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