Canonization of the Massabki brothers, a Christmas present from the Pope

Victims of the 1860 massacres in Mount Lebanon and Damascus, the three brothers could advance, today, with the resurgence of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, the cause of the ecumenism of the saints.

The Maronite Church has just announced, through the voice of Patriarch Béchara Raï, that Pope Francis has approved the decree proclaiming the brothers Francis, Abdel Mohti and Raphaël Massabki “martyrs of the faith”. Died during the sadly famous massacres of 1860 in Damascus, the three brothers will be counted among the number of saints of the universal Church, independently of any miracle that may be performed at their intercession.

“It’s our Christmas present,” said the head of the Maronite Church, speaking of the honor given, through them, to his community. The date of the canonization ceremony, which is normally celebrated in Rome, has not yet been set.

The Massabki brothers were killed in Damascus in massacres whose historical causes date back to rivalries in Mount Lebanon between Druze and Maronites, fueled by foreign interference and in which the Ottoman governor Ahmad Pasha was one of the key players. The three men were killed on July 10, 1860 at the Franciscan convent, after having refused to renounce their Christian faith during a rebellion which extended from July 9 to 18, and of which between 4,000 and 4,000 were victims in Damascus itself. 6,000 Christians, but which also extended to the Bekaa, in particular to Zahlé.

The eldest, Francis, was a wealthy merchant, straight in business, a generous man who helped the poor and whose large house was open to all. He was the father of eight children. The youngest, Abdel Mohti, taught at the Franciscan school and had five children. Raphaël, the youngest, was single and helped his brothers. Between the Massabki family and the Franciscans, the ties were not only of good neighborliness but also of common spirituality.

Damascus massacre in 1860

At the foot of the altar of the Virgin

On the tragic day of July 10, when the massacres of Christians had begun in Damascus, the Massabki reached the Franciscan convent near Bab Touma, to find refuge there. The aggressors attacked the convent, all doors closed, and entered it by a rear entrance which was opened to them by a “regular” of the place who acts as a traitor. Francis was at the foot of the altar of the Virgin, inside the church, when the horde of killers burst in. Wealthy, he had lent money to one of the instigators of the violence, Sheikh Abdallah el-Halabi. The assailants summoned him, to save his life, to become a Muslim. He answered them: “Your master, Sheikh Abdallah, can keep my money. You can take my life. But my faith, no one can take it away from me. I cannot deny my God. (…) I am a Christian.” They showered him with beatings, before finishing him with daggers and axes. His flesh was scattered throughout the church. His brothers also refused to deny Christ. They were killed in a manner as barbaric as their elder brother: Abdel Mohti in the courtyard of the church and Raphaël inside the convent. The eight Franciscan monks in the convent, seven Spaniards and one Austrian, suffered the same fate.

During the nine days when the massacres continued, nearly 20,000 Christians were murdered in Damascus and the Bekaa. Eleven churches and three convents were destroyed in the Syrian capital, and between 1,500 and 2,000 houses and 200 shops burned and/or razed. The Russian, Dutch, Belgian, American and Greek consulates were ransacked and burned.

Icon representing the Massabki brothers.

Muslims save honor

Pious Muslims saved honor, including the Algerian Emir Abdel Kader, exiled by France to Damascus, thanks to whom many Christians were saved and were able to reach safe areas of Lebanon. Many Muslims, horrified by the murderous madness which, in the name of religion, animated Ahmad Bacha’s hordes, offered to hide hunted Christians. According to an episcopal source, the anti-Christian fanaticism which manifested itself then has nothing to envy to that which the Islamic State manifests today. It was to the point, he said, that pregnant women were impaled and disembowelled.

Just in return, the news of the massacres perpetrated in 1860 horrified a West which wanted to be protective of the Christians of the East. Napoleon III’s France sent a military contingent to Lebanon. The representations of the Western powers to the Sublime Porte had the desired effect. Ahmad Bacha was executed, along with other Empire officials who had been involved in the massacre and hundreds of accomplices imprisoned or exiled.

In 1926, some 66 years after the massacres, on a joint initiative by the Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus and the Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Mgr. Béchara Chémali (whose territory extended as far as Sarba, in Lebanon), the three brothers Massabki were declared blessed by Pope Pius XI (October 7, 1926), at the same time as the martyred Franciscan religious. Since then, the Maronite Church celebrates the blessed Massabki brothers on the Sunday following July 12 of each year.

Beheaded icon.

Ecumenism of martyrs

Today, in the spirit of unity promoted by Saint Pope John Paul II and perpetuated by his successors, voices are being raised for the ceremony of canonization of the blessed to be an opportunity to better highlight “the ‘ecumenism of the martyrs’.

It happens, in fact, that among the victims of the 1860 massacres, there is also that of Youssef Mehanna-Haddad, a priest of the Orthodox Church of Antioch. The latter, who came out of his house incognito, at the same time as his daughter-in-law (all Orthodox priests are married), was, in fact, recognized by rioters, seized and killed. His memory is solemnly commemorated by his Church.

However, until now, the Latin, Maronite and Orthodox Churches commemorate the memory of the martyrs of 1860 independently of each other, raise ecclesiastical circles sensitive to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, knowing that among the victims of the 1860 massacres in Damascus , the faithful of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church outnumbered the Maronite faithful. However, it is strongly noted in these circles, it is necessary to realize that these Christians of different confessions “have testified of their life for the same Christ”.

What John-Paul II wanted to say, one explains in substance in these circles of Church, it is that “the unity of the Christians is not to be sought”; that it is not to be acted as if it did not exist, but to be extended, “because it is already realized in the martyrs and the saints” of the various Churches who have witnessed to their faith, right up to the gift of life.

Within the Catholic Church, some are campaigning for the establishment of a day for the new martyrs of the Middle East who, in the diversity of their affiliation, pay today, with their lives, for their fidelity to Christ. According to these circles, where we note the massive resurgence of the persecution of the Churches, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world such as Africa, it is estimated that such a day would be a “providential “to ask forgiveness for the divisions between Christians, which in the past even led to bloody conflicts between the different communities. Thus, even the evil of persecution could change and become good, the good of greater unity.

Damascus massacre in 1860

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Canonization of the Massabki brothers, a Christmas present from the Pope