Pope proclaims first saints, says Christians still persecuted

Sun May 12, 2013 7:12am EDT
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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Sunday proclaimed as saints some 800 Italians killed in the 15th century for refusing to convert to Islam, and said many Christians were still being persecuted for their faith.

The Vatican seemed at pains not to allow the first canonizations of Francis' two-month-old papacy to be interpreted as anti-Islamic, saying the deaths of the 'Otranto Marytrs' must be understood in their historical context.

The 800 were killed in 1480 in the siege of Otranto, on the southeastern Adriatic, by Ottoman Turks who sacked the city, killed its archbishop and told the citizens to surrender and convert.

When they refused, the Ottoman commanding officer ordered the execution of all men aged 15 or older, most by beheading.

"While we venerate the Otranto Martyrs, we ask God to sustain the many Christians who, today, in many parts of the world, right now, still suffer violence and give them the courage to be faithful and to respond to evil with good," Francis said before more than 70,000 people in St. Peter's Square.

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 who have been caught up in sectarian strife in Egypt.

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".

HEALING MIRACLE   Continued...

Pope Francis waves at the end of a canonization mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini