Lebanese Church celebrates two friars martyred by the Ottomans
Card Semeraro presided over the beatification ceremony of Fr Léonard Melki and Fr Thomas Saleh. Because of their witness of faith, they were "victims in the eyes of men” but “victors” from a perspective of faith. As in the past, world today is giving in to the violence of war, and so the testimonies of blood are back.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – It was in the streaming light of a late afternoon last Saturday, on the eve of the feast of Pentecost, that Lebanon celebrated the beatification of two of its sons born in B'abdāt (Mount Lebanon), and killed in Turkey "in hatred of the faith", in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War.
Trapped amid desperate efforts to save a decaying empire, Leonard Melki (1881-1915), and Thomas Saleh (1879-1917), priests of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), chose to continue their mission as educators and missionaries, at the risk of their own lives. They were declared blessed and martyrs of the universal Church.
Organised by the Latin Church in Lebanon, Vice-Province of the Capuchin Friars Minor and the Congregation of the Franciscans of the Cross, the service was celebrated on the large esplanade of the main building of the Convent of the Cross, in Jal el-Dib, on a hill overlooking the sea and Beirut.
Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, led the divine office. Pamphlets published by the Order of Friars Minor provided some details of the suffering the Ottomans inflicted on the two Capuchins.
According to these accounts, Father Léonard Melki refused to apostatise after hiding the Blessed Sacrament when a police detachment came to search his convent, looking for a fictitious cache of weapons. Arrested, he was cruelly beaten and tortured for a week. His torturers went so far as to tear off the fingernails of his hands and feet.
Despite everything, hymns continued to rise from the jails transformed sometimes into cathedrals, sometimes into confessionals. Brother Léonard never regretted asking Christ to “take upon himself the sufferings” of his Armenian confrere. Along with 417 other Christian prisoners from Mardin, he was then deported to the desert and was shot to death on 11 June 1915, at the age of 34. The bodies of the tortured were then thrown into ravines and caves.
A kind of "bright cloud"
The column of the deportees included Armenian Catholic bishop, Blessed Ignatius Maloyan (1869-1915), who was executed separately, after refusing, indifferent to threats as well as promises, to deny Christ and embrace Islam. According to some accounts, witnesses among the guards of the column of deportees saw “a kind of luminous cloud” above the prisoners, who were allowed to celebrate a last prayer before they were slaughtered.
For his part, Father Thomas Saleh (1879-1917) was arrested on suspicion of plotting against the Ottoman Empire for simply hiding an Armenian priest in his convent. Imprisoned with three other religious from his convent, he was deported in the middle of winter to Marash, forced to march in the desert, barefoot, rain or shine. Sentenced to death, he died on the way from exhaustion and typhus, on 18 January 1917, at the age of 36, before his execution could be carried out.
Victor in the service of truth
“Victims, in the eyes of men, Brother Léonard Melki and Brother Thomas Saleh are nevertheless victorious in the eyes of the Christian faith,” Cardinal Semeraro said during his homily.
Taking his cue from Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe salvi (Saved in Hope), he said: “But in truly great trials, where we must make a definitive decision to place the truth before our own welfare, career and possessions, we need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses – martyrs – who have given themselves totally. The figures of Blessed Léonard Melki and Thomas Saleh thus help us to choose, in the small choices of everyday life, what is good over what is convenient.”
"Who are the martyrs,” asked Cardinal Semeraro. “For Saint Ambrose, every time the Church commemorates the death of her Saviour, which we do when we celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice, she receives a wound of love. He then explains that not everyone can say that he was hurt by such love. But the martyrs can say it . . . because they were wounded because of his name."
The return of nationalism
Among the many meanings the martyrdom of Thomas Saleh and Leonardo Melki have for today’s Lebanese, one stands out for its current relevance. It can be found in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente (As the third millennium approaches).
While welcoming the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Paul II prophetically wrote: “After 1989 however there arose new dangers and threats. In the countries of the former Eastern bloc, after the fall of Communism, there appeared the serious threat of exaggerated nationalism, as is evident from events in the Balkans and other neighbouring areas. This obliges the European nations to make a serious examination of conscience, and to acknowledge faults and errors, both economic and political, resulting from imperialist policies carried out in the previous and present centuries vis-à-vis nations whose rights have been systematically violated.”
These were prophetic words. The violation of the rights of nations, large and small, by new imperialisms can be seen today both in Europe and the Middle East.
Speaking about the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, John Paul II also noted: “In our own century the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, ‘unknown soldiers’ as it were of God's great cause. As far as possible, their witness should not be lost to the Church” and “local Churches should do everything possible to ensure that the memory of those who have suffered martyrdom should be safeguarded, gathering the necessary documentation. This gesture cannot fail to have an ecumenical character and expression. Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs.”
The testimony of blood is effectively back in a world that is gradually giving in to warlike violence.
*Photos by Constance de Coudert, French freelance photographer