Pope Francis completes contentious canonisation of Otranto martyrs

Pontiff avoids word Islam and nature of deaths as he makes saints of 800 killed by Ottoman Turks in 1480 for not converting

Pope Francis has canonised more than 800 15th-century martyrs who were killed after refusing to convert to Islam – a delicate and arguably unwelcome ecclesiastical move he inherited from his predecessor Benedict.

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, the 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 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".

But that did not prevent Il Giornale, the Italian newspaper owned by Silvio Berlusconi's brother, to describe the martyrs as "victims of Islam" in a headline.

In a speech to diplomats at the Vatican days after his election as pontiff, Francis made clear his intention to smooth away the tensions that had marred some of Benedict's time as the head of the Roman Catholic church, speaking of the need for greater interfaith dialogue, particularly with Islam.

He raised conservative eyebrows by including a Muslim woman in a foot-washing ritual on Maundy Thursday.

As he spoke of the new saints on Sunday, the pope focused on the Otranto martyrs' commitment to Christianity rather than their rejection of Islam or the nature of their deaths.

Little is known of the individuals who were executed when they refused to convert, but they are believed to have all been men aged over 15. 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 after a 15-day siege, the men were given the choice of conversion or execution.

According to Pope John Paul II, who visited Otranto in 1980 for the 500th anniversary of the massacre, Primaldo declared: "We believe in Jesus Christ, son of God, and for Jesus Christ we are ready to die."

The date of these canonisations was announced by Pope Benedict at the same gathering with cardinals in February at which he announced his resignation, the first pontiff to do so in almost 600 years. One of his final wishes, therefore, was left to his successor to enact.

"Dear friends, let us keep the faith which we have received and which is our true treasure; let us renew our devotion to the Lord even in the midst of obstacles and misunderstandings," said Francis on Sunday.

In 2007, his predecessor had issued a decree recognising that the Otranto martyrs had been killed "out of hatred for their faith". Pope Benedict appeared determined to push through their canonisation, in December authorising the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree attributing a miracle to the intercession of the men – a crucial step towards sainthood.

His eight-year pontificate was not without interfaith frictions. In 2006 Benedict made a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that was interpreted by many as an attack on Islam. He said he had been misunderstood.


Lizzy Davies in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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