My day started with the New York Times. It ended with the 800 Martyrs of Otranto.
Traveling with friends, my husband and I were exploring Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, for the first time this fall. At breakfast on October 27 the International New York Times greeted me with a headline about eyewitness reports of the torture of James Wright Foley, the American journalist beheaded live on television on August 19. The front-page photo showed a hand holding a cellphone showing an image of the prison camp. I read on.
Horror piled on horror. Pieced together from interviews with released hostages, local witnesses, relatives and colleagues of the captives, and advisers who visited the region, the Times report said Foley had suffered “the cruelest treatment”: hung by his ankles in shackles upside down, prolonged beatings, mock executions, repeated waterboardings, weeks spent in darkness with no mattresses and few blankets
Then came the surprise. Belgian Jejeon Bontinck, 19, released late last year, told the Times that Foley had converted to Islam shortly after capture and that his conversion seemed sincere. Others said Foley was “captivated by Islam” and spent hours engrossed in reading the Koran in English.
I was surprised because I had read how Foley, a Roman Catholic, had said his Christian faith had sustained him during his captivity in Libya for 44 days in 2011. I did some checking. The Times sources cannot be checked because, other than Bontinck, they refused to give their names for security reasons. But reports of Foley’s strong faith were easy to find. In a letter to Marquette University’s magazine in late 2011, Foley said it was praying the rosary on his knuckles that kept him focused. He wrote: “If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released….”
Just then my companions interrupted my reading to go first to Lecce, a city called (justly I’d say) the Florence of the South, and then to Otranto. First Greek, then Roman, Byzantine, briefly Ottoman, Norman, part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and finally Italian, Otranto is steeped in history. But it was an event from 1480 that drew my attention that evening.
Walking on rain-dusted cobblestones, our main destination was Otranto Cathedral, a Norman church, built in 1068 on the remains of a much earlier Christian church. Best known for its giant 12th Century floor mosaic of the Tree of Life, the church drew my attention with the Shrine to the 800 Martyrs just to the right of the altar. Three walls stacked with their skulls and bones surround a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. I knelt in prayer.
Their story begins in the early morning of May 29, 1453, when Ottoman soldiers broke through the seemingly impregnable walls of Constantine’s capital, Constantinople, founded in 325. Later that day their leader the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II rode proudly into the city and promptly turned Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great 6th Century church, into a mosque. Mehmet is then widely alleged to have said his final goal was to stable his horses in St. Peter’s in Rome. Whether the general actually said those words or not, his goal was clear: The entire Mediterranean would be a Muslim lake. Only Italy, the southern coast of France and northern Spain remained to be taken. Otranto, only some 30 miles west of Albania, was the first stop.
Sources dither over what exactly happened there. Some historians say the story of the martyrs is legend only. Written sources didn’t appear for two decades. All agree, however, that Mehmet II did indeed send a fleet of some 250 ships with 18,000 soldiers to establish a beachhead for the march to Rome. On July 29 the assault on Otranto, a city of between 6,000 and 12,000 (sources differ) began.
By August 14, with thousands of citizens dead defending their city, Otranto was in the hands of the Ottoman forces. Remaining women and children were taken into slavery. And, 800 men between 15 and 50 were, according to legend and the earliest sources, given the choice to convert or be beheaded. The city’s Bishop Stefano Pendinelli was killed, some say sawn in half, and so was Archbishop Stefano Agricoli. Led by a courageous tailor named Antonio Primaldi or Pezzulla (those sources again) the 800 men refused and one-by-one were beheaded on the Hill of Minerva just outside the town. According to chronicler Giovanni Laggetto’s della Guerra di Otranto del 1480 (one of those early sources), Primaldi said: “…we fight to save our souls for our Lord, so that having died on the cross for us, it is good that we should die for him….”
Historian Norman Housley, author of Crusading and the Ottoman Threat, 1453-1505 (2012), it was “the fall of Otranto, rather than Constantinople, that constituted their ‘9/11 moment.’” Ferdinand I, king of Naples, rallied his forces. Mehmet II died on May 3, 1481, distracting the Ottomans with wars of succession. In September, Ferdinand’s son Duke Alfonso, along with help from papal and Hungarian forces, recaptured Otranto. The Ottomans never landed on Italian soil again.
Though historians question the story, the Roman Catholic Church does not. The 800 Martyrs were beatified in 1771. The process stalled. But, on October 5, 1980, John Paul II visited Otranto, in July 2006 Benedict XVI reopened the canonization process, and Pope Francis canonized all 800 on May 12, 2013, in Rome. He said: “They refused to deny their faith and died professing the Risen Christ. Where did they find the strength to stay faithful? In the faith itself, which enables us to see beyond the limits of our human sight, beyond the boundaries of earthly life.”
When it comes to James Wright Foley, the Church is also clear. First, Bontinck is hardly a reliable witness, being in jail in Belgium awaiting trial for being a member Sharia4Belgium, a terrorist group. Next, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom states that the right to religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person. “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion…” Fr. Luke Mata of Los Angeles said that if Foley did convert to Islam, it is likely he did it to end the torture, not to deny his Christian faith. “The circumstances, mainly torture, mitigate or completely absolve any culpability,” he said.
James Wright Foley was surely coerced, tortured mercilessly. In the eyes of his Church James Wright Foley most likely died a faithful Roman Catholic, just like the Martyrs of Otranto.