Modern martyrs in the Syrian heartland of early Christianity

History repeats itself as invaders give a choice of conversion or death.
Vincenzina Santoro | Sep 19 2013 | comment  

Flush with victory across what is today Turkey, in mid-1480 the Ottoman Turks led by Mohammad II thought they were on a roll and could conquer Rome just as easily as Constantinople.

They gathered numerous galleys and formidable troops and set sail across the Mediterranean for the closest Italian port. Due to inclement weather they failed to reach the major town of Brindisi and landed at Otranto, a smaller town much farther south. The terrified inhabitants were outnumbered and insufficiently armed. They called for reinforcements from the King of Naples. He was engaged elsewhere in battle and failed to arrive. The Ottomans savored victory.

They quickly rounded up all the men as hostages, brought them to a nearby cliff and ordered them to convert to Islam or to be decapitated and thrown down into the ravine below. Led by Antonio Primaldo, to a man the prisoners professed their Christianity. One by one they were beheaded with the thin long blades of the scimitar, a weapon still in use today. Some 800 men were slaughtered.

Tradition has it that one of the Turks, inspired by the faith of the martyrs, converted to Christianity and was beheaded with the others. The skulls of the martyrs were retrieved a year or so later and eventually placed in glass wall enclosures behind and around the altar of a chapel built alongside the Cathedral of Otranto.

An interesting aside: the Cathedral of Otranto, which dates back to the 12th century, contains a sweeping mosaic floor depicting the “tree of life” (the life’s work of a monk named Pantaleone) whose branches contain a mixture of the sacred and profane, from scenes of the Apocalypse to the signs of the zodiac, the former perhaps a harbinger of the horrors that were to occur some 300 years later.

The Otranto martyrs were beatified in 1771 and became the first saints canonized by Pope Francis on May 12, 2013.

Only four months later, on September 4, on the other side of the Mediterranean, a similar scene unfolded when Islamists sacked the village of Maaloula, the cradle of Syrian Christianity and a holy pilgrimage site in the outskirts of Damascus, where residents speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

Brandishing scimitars, a few terrorist Islamists entered a Christian home and ordered the four people present to convert on the spot. Three men were beheaded but the wounded sister of one of the martyrs lived to tell the story. The brother, Sarkis El-Zakhm, reportedly said to his captor: “I am Christian and if you want to kill me because I am Christian, do so!” The funerals of the three martyrs were held on September 10.

The Islamists that invaded Otranto in 1480 were eventually routed from the Italian peninsula. The son of the King of Naples arrived too late to save most of the townspeople but he defeated the invaders and expelled them. The Cathedral of Otranto today is still a beautiful house of worship and the town is a picturesque summer resort.

The besieged Christians of Maaloula today face an uncertain fate. Just like the residents of Otranto sought outside help to repel their invaders, so too the residents of Maaloula reached out. In a letter to the US Congress they recounted the terrorist sacking of their village’s churches and monasteries and destruction of human life while pleading that their village and their country be spared the additional terror of American bombs. Perhaps this time the pen will be mightier than the sword.

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.

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