(TheBlaze/AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday bestowed sainthood upon hundreds of 15th-century martyrs beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam as part of his first canonization ceremony in a packed St. Peter’s Square.
The “Martyrs of Otranto” were 813 Italians who were slain in the southern Italian city in 1480 for defying demands by Turkish invaders who overran the citadel to renounce Christianity.
Their approval for sainthood was decided upon by Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, in a decree read at the ceremony in February where the former pontiff announced his retirement. Others were canonized during the ceremony as well.
Shortly after his election in March, Francis called for more dialogue with Muslims, and it was unclear how the granting of sainthood to the martyrs would be received. Islam is a sensitive subject for the church, and Benedict stumbled significantly in his relations with the Muslim community.
Francis told the crowd that the martyrs are a source of inspiration, especially for “so many Christians, who, right in these times and in so many parts of the world, still suffer violence.” He prayed that they receive “the courage of loyalty and to respond to evil with good.”
The pope didn’t single out any country. But Christian churches have been attacked in Nigeria and Iraq, and Catholics in China loyal to the Vatican have been subject to harassment and sometimes jail over the last decades.
Christians in Saudi Arabia must worship out of the public eye because the ultraconservative kingdom does not officially permit churches and non-Muslim religious sites.
After shaking hands with the prelates and VIPs in the front rows at the end of the Mass, Francis shed his ceremonial vestments. Wearing a plain white cassock, he climbed into an open white popemobile to ride up and down the security paths surrounding the crowd of more than 60,000.
He stopped to pat children on the head, kiss babies and bantered in his native Spanish with some at the edge of the crowd.
Here’s a video summary of Pope Francis’ first canonization ceremony: