The Pope has announced that 14 Blesseds will be canonised on 20th October. The 14 include a group of 11 – 8 Friars and 3 Maronite lay people, who were violently killed in Damascus in 1860.

Early in the nineteenth century, Damascus was a pleasant and peaceful place, with shady cafes along the banks of the Barada. Christians and Jews practised their religions in peace and relationships with the powerful Druze community, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam, were harmonious and amicable.

Following a change of Emir in 1840, it was decided to formalise this peaceful coexistence, in a decree that all citizens would be equal, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. This, however backfired, as Muslims felt it implied some loss of their superiority. Amidst increasing tensions, a conflict developed between Christians and the Druze, and after localised disturbances, Druze lords began making preparations for war while the Christians began distributing weapons among their Maronite peasants.

In the Spring of 1860, numerous acts of murder, looting and skirmishing took place across the Christian-Druze divide, including the looting of a Catholic monastery and the murder of its superior. Fighting spilled over into Damascus, where many thousands of Christians were killed and the Christian quarter of the old city (mostly inhabited by Catholics), including several churches, was burnt down.

On the night of 9th July, a Druze command successfully penetrated the Franciscan friary of St. Paul and eight Friars Minor – seven Spaniards and one Austrian – as well as three Maronite lay Christians, were barbarously slaughtered. The superior, a Spaniard named Fr. Manuel Ruiz López, who had sheltered Christians that lived around the convent, was threatened with death unless he immediately converted to Islam. He refused and was cut to pieces and killed. The remaining seven community members and the three Maronite lay people also chose to die rather than deny their faith.

Among the Friars who were martyred, was one Fr Nicolás María Alberca Torres, a priest of the Order of Friars Minor, and a citizen of Aguilar de la Frontera, Córdoba. He was a young man of just 30 years.

The view of the Roman Catholic church is that they died a martyr’s death as their Druze killers had demanded that they renounce their Christian faith and embrace Islam, but they refused. As a result, they were beatified in 1926 by Pope Pius XI. But then their story was largely forgotten. Its recent revival and their growing fame perhaps reflect an increasing awareness of the damage that religious difference has done to the Middle East, and the hope that their canonisation could become a focus for dialogue, peace and unity for the region.

Read the full story here.  Learn more about the Order of Friars Minor here.

The picture above is a Glass-photo, ca 1860, of the destruction of the Christian Quarter in Damascus in 1860.