During the past several years, the Mideast has made the headlines as a maelstrom of religious, social and political violence. It may help us to know that this is nothing new in those parts! The case of the Blessed Martyrs of Damascus is a good illustration.
In 1856, Turkey, the Muslim country that had controlled most of the Mideast for years, was defeated in the Crimean War. In the peace treaty, the Turkish sultan had to sign a decree forbidding future discrimination against non-Muslims in taxes and in access to civil office.
The sultan may well have signed such a law, but dyed-in-the-wool Turkish Muslims considered it an insult and not acceptable. They had never granted equal rights to Christians, and, so help them Allah, they never would. A fanatical sect called the Druses (who have also figured in more recent conflicts) was determined to put down the Christians, especially those who lived in Lebanon.
In 1860, the Druses began a systematic massacre of Christians. The Turkish officials persuaded the Christians to give up their arms in the interest of maintaining peace. That just made things easier for the Druses. From May 30 to June 26, 1860, they pillaged and burned every defenseless Maronite village in main and southern Lebanon, killing, mutilating or otherwise degrading 6,000 Christians. Some of these victims were members of religious orders like the five Jesuit missionaries of Zahleh and the 21 Maronite monks of Dair al-Kadar. The only bright spot in the episode was the protection given by the Algerian Muslim leader, Abd-al-Kadar, who boldly sheltered 1500 Christians, Europeans and Oriental.
The slaughter reached Damascus on July 9, 1860, and 3,000 men were slain. European Franciscans had a convent there. When the attackers neared, the father superior gathered all his flock together, including the school children, to pray in the chapel. They might have escaped the mob, had not a man whom the friars had befriended turned traitor and shown the killers an unguarded back entrance.
The Muslim group killed eleven of these persons clearly out of hatred of the Christian faith. The superior, Blessed Emmanual Ruiz, was a Spaniard. When they demanded that he give up the faith, he replied, “I am a Christian and I will die a Christian.” So they split open his head with their axes. Bl. Engelbert Kolland, an Austrian Franciscan, was also killed for refusing to deny the faith. Bl. Carmen Volta lay dying for an hour. Two Muslim friends found him and said they would hide him in their house if he apostatized. He refused, so they killed him. Much the same thing happened to Bl. Nicanor Ascanio, Bl. Peter Soler and Bl. Nicholas Alberca. The two other Franciscans executed were lay brothers, Bl. Francis Pinazo and Bl. John James Fernandez. Most of the lay people in the house escaped or were spared, but three lay Maronites, all blood-brothers, shared the fate of the friars: Bls. Francis, Abdul-Muti, and Raphael Masabki. Francis was aged about 70. All three had refused the demands of the rioters that they embrace Islam.
Pope Pius XI beatified these eleven modern martyrs on October 10, 1926. Their story was another chapter in the tempestuous history of the Near East, where savage violence, largely religious in its motivation, has so long been visited on those who were swept into its whirlpool. Sometimes the victims were locals, Christian or non-Christian, or sometimes innocent bystanders from the West.
We would do well to call upon these blessed martyrs of Damascus to intercede for peace among the still embattled peoples of the Middle East. May Muslims and Christians, both children of the one God, remember that God is love.
–Father Robert F. McNamara