In May Pope Francis canonized the 800 martyrs of Otranto, a city in Apulia in Southern Italy, who were slaughtered by the Turkish invaders of 1480. Their invasion across the narrow seas between Albania and Italy was a sequel to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the advance of the Turkish armies up the Balkans toward Belgrade.
Upon arrival in Apulia, the Turkish army demanded that the inhabitants of the besieged city of Otranto surrender and convert to Islam. They refused, and two weeks later the Muslims broke into the city and slaughtered its people, with many others being sold into slavery. They entered the cathedral and killed the archbishop of Otranto as he was celebrating Mass, together with his congregation. The following day the Turks rounded up the 800 survivors and ordered them to convert to Islam. Led by Antonio Primaldo, a cutter of cloth, they all refused to renounce their Christian faith and were publicly beheaded. That they had chosen martyrdom was soon perceived and proclaimed by the people of the region, and their sacrifice has been commemorated annually ever since. They were beatified in 1771, and after a thorough historical investigation the validity of their cause was finally approved in 2007 by Pope Benedict, who announced their canonization in February 2013. The ceremony in Rome in May was the culmination of a long and careful process.
The Turks had hoped that the slaughter at Otranto would scare the people of Southern Italy into submission and enable their armies to march north and capture Rome. However, Pope Sixtus IV called for a crusade, and a coalition of Italian states, reinforced by an army from Hungary, was able to drive the Turkish invader out. Had they not succeeded, Rome today would be a Muslim city, and Italy a part of the Islamic world.
It is singularly appropriate that the 800 should be canonized at a time when the integrity of Christian Europe is threatened by massive immigration from many Muslim countries, notably Turkey and Morocco. The immigrants have refused to integrate and continue to try to press the claimed superiority of their religion upon Europe and to demand special treatment.
The Otranto saga is a reminder of the historically precarious position of Europe, a Christian peninsula surrounded by Muslims whose rule has long extended from Morocco and the Maghreb through Turkey and the Middle East to central Asia. The expansion of Europe overseas with the discovery of the Americas obscured this central fact, but the history of Europe has long been one of a continent subject to imperial Muslim attack not just in Italy but in Spain and Portugal, in Greece and the Balkans. The early, rapid Muslim military conquest of the once-Christian lands of the Middle East and North Africa split the formerly united civilizations of the Mediterranean into two hostile halves. Even the domination of Russia by the Golden Horde from Central Asia can be seen as having an Islamic dimension. Christian Europe was under siege.
The Turkish attack was not the first Muslim invasion of Italy, for Sicily had been attacked by Arabs as early as 652. The Muslims conquered Sicily and parts of Southern Italy in the following century and remained there until driven out by the Normans at the end of the 11th century. The Christians of Sicily were a thoroughly subjugated people, and many were coerced into converting to Islam. It was a smaller version of the Muslim conquest of Spain and Portugal between 711 and 718, which left the Christian Spaniards with only the mountain principalities of the Asturias in the north. Indeed, the Muslim armies went on to invade France and came close to success. It took 700 years for the Islamic invader to be driven out of Spain and Portugal.
Today, the leftist defenders of Islam in Europe push a very partial and distorted version of the Muslims’ occupation of their Iberian colony. They speak of the survival of some of the Christians, who were allowed to practice their religion, much as the Copts of Egypt have done, but not of the crushing and discriminatory taxes imposed on them. The leftists also lay undue stress on the artistic and cultural achievements of the Muslim conquerors. The latter’s achievements were real, though they have been deliberately exaggerated as a way of belittling the intellectual life of Christian Europe. That these rulers’ tolerance was intermittent we can see from the writings of the greatest of those Muslim thinkers drawn from the Arab and Berber ruling families of Andalusia, the historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Ibn Khaldun was able to show how periods of urbane tolerance and laxity by Muslims in the western Mediterranean were regularly interrupted by the arrival and rule of rigorous fundamentalists such as the Almoravids and the Almohads, who strictly and brutally enforced sharia.
The numbers of Christians in Muslim Spain inevitably declined since some converted under pressure or through intermarriage, and any Muslim who chose to become a Christian could be executed for abandoning Islam. Former Christians could not revert, and those with one Muslim and one Christian parent could not choose Christianity. It was a legally enforced one-way traffic between the religions. Had the occupation of Iberia continued long enough, Christianity would have disappeared altogether, as it was to do in North Africa, once the home of Saint Augustine. Public defiance of Muslim hegemony by Christians could result in a trial for blasphemy, and the sentence would be a choice between death and conversion to Islam. Many, such as the martyrs of Córdoba, chose death. Many martyred Spanish saints of the ninth century, such as Saint Perfectus and Saint Eulogius, took this path. Their public execution fortified the faith of those who otherwise might have been tempted to compromise with their Muslim rulers.
In the end, the Muslims lost Spain as they had gained it: by force. They were gradually pushed southward and finally defeated in 1492. Those who stayed—whether Arabs, Berbers, or the descendants of Spanish apostates—had to become Christians, but often remained Muslim in sentiment and retained treasonable contacts with a Muslim world still hostile to Christian Europe. Nonetheless, the expulsion in 1609-14 of the entire community of some 300,000 people was tragic, and, in the 21st century, leftists have tried to exploit the memory of their suffering to seek quite absurdly to restore Spanish citizenship to their descendants, despite the impossibility of identifying them and the serious social disruption it would create in Spain.
Yet was their fate any different from that of the million French settlers who had to leave Algeria in 1962? When leftists speak of the French incursions into Algeria from 1830 onward, they denounce it as “imperialism” and “colonialism.” Curiously, they completely avoid the use of those terms when they are writing about the Muslim invasions of Europe. Did not the Christian nations of Europe have a right to self-determination free from conquest and the imposition of an alien and unwanted culture? If the Muslims in Spain are to be defended in terms of their achievements in art and architecture, irrigation and chemistry, and the transmission to Western Europe of the mathematical scholarship of Hindu India and ancient Greece, why is the same point denied in relation to the 19th- and 20th-century colonial empires of the French, the British, the Dutch, and the Americans? Are not Mumbai and Singapore, Johannesburg and Sydney the equals of Moorish Córdoba and Granada in commerce and learning?
The final imperial Islamic incursion into Europe was, as we have seen, that of the Ottoman Turks. They seized, in turn, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Cyprus, and Rumania and reached as far as Vienna—and were a threat to Poland. Only gradually were they forced to retreat from Europe, and as they did they massacred the local people, culminating in the Bulgarian atrocities of 1876. In the Bulgarian village of Batak alone, 5,000 of the 8,000 villagers were killed. These murders were reported in detail by the Ohio journalist Januarius MacGahan, who had seen the corpses and interviewed the survivors. The villagers were tortured to reveal where they had hidden their possessions and were burned alive in the local church and in their homes, and their daughters were taken away to be raped and subsequently beheaded. Seeing their bones, MacGahan suggested that the Turks, thinking that in such a remote place no Westerner would ever find out, left the bodies to rot and be eaten by animals. MacGahan suggests they cynically thought, “These Christians are not even worth burial, let the dogs eat them.” MacGahan was particularly shocked at the killing of very young children and, fairly or not, reported in the Daily News on August 22, 1876, that
When a Mohammedan has killed a certain number of infidels he is sure of Paradise, no matter what his sins may be. Mahomet probably intended that only armed men should count, but the ordinary Mussulman takes the precept in its broader acceptation, and counts women and children as well. The advantage of killing children is that it can be done without danger, and that a child counts for as much as an armed man.
William Ewart Gladstone, who became prime minister of Britain following a political campaign designed to provoke outrage at the massacres, wrote of the Turks in his pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East,
They were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view. They represented everywhere government by force, as opposed to government by law.
Even though Gladstone exempted other Muslims from his condemnation, one can imagine how ill received his forthright language would be today. It is no longer permitted to mention the persecution of Christians by Muslims in an accusing way. The Turks are a substantial ethnic minority in the cities of Northern Europe and, thus, exempt from criticism. In Turkey, the descendants of these murderers deny that the Bulgarian atrocities ever happened, just as they deny the Armenian genocide and the killing of the saints of Otranto. It is impossible to take their self-interested denials seriously.
The European empires of the 19th and 20th centuries not only exercised religious toleration but often conferred substantial political and economic benefits on their colonies. No such benefits ever stemmed from the rule of the Turks in Europe, whose empire produced only economic stagnation and political corruption. The exponents of “postcolonial theory,” who explain away every evil deed of a Third World dictator as being the fault of some now-long-distant European colonial rule, would be better employed looking at the Balkans. There, the rule of the Ottomans is still referred to as the “Turkish Yoke,” and the legacy of past Muslim repression is still clearly visible in the utter lack of trust in government and the endemic bribery that periodically lead to economic collapse. The people are still haunted by the ghost of the Turk.
The canonization of the Otranto martyrs should give the people of Europe a new self-respect born of their ancestors’ willingness to defend the Christian Faith, so central to European identity, against Islamic aggression. It also provides an implicit public recognition that Islam is in no sense a religion of peace but has a long and nasty history of conquest and expansion. The peoples of India and Africa and the Christian minorities in Muslim countries know this from bitter experience, but the Europeans tend to forget. Indeed, those with power in education and in the mass media want them to go on forgetting. They peddle a mendacious and sanitized version of history in which clashes of civilizations are played down and in which the pervasive Muslim ideology of domination and expansion is never mentioned. The politically correct are equally concerned to prevent us from taking a special pride in the distinctive virtues and achievements of Christian Europe and of the countries of the New World settled by European Christians. Christians alone are to be denigrated in the name of secular egalitarianism, while the Muslims are to be shielded from all criticism—not just of their present sins, but of those of their past.
Yet the very different concepts of martyrdom in the two religions give the lie to this. The unarmed martyrs of Otranto allowed themselves to be killed by the Muslim aggressor rather than deny their faith. They did not seek death, but they accepted it. We may contrast this with the Muslim suicide bombers, perversely called martyrs, who cause their own deaths in order to inflict death, suffering, and grief on ordinary people going about their everyday lives. A Sunni Muslim who blows up the worshipers at a mosque of the rival Shi’ites is revered as a martyr. The moral superiority of the Christian way is encapsulated in this dichotomy between the Otranto martyrdom of acceptance and this alien “martyrdom” of hatred.