Every year on 10 July, the liturgical calendar of the Custody of the Holy Land commemorates the “Martyrs of Damascus” : eight friars minor and three lay Maronites, killed “in hatred of the faith” on the night between 9 and 10 July 1860. Pius XI beatified them in 1926.
The story of the martyrs
Violence broke out in Damascus in 1860 in a context of persecution by the Shiite Druze, which from Lebanon had spread to Syria. Thousands of Christians are believed to have lost their lives. On the night between 9 and 10 July 1860, a Druze commando entered the Franciscan convent in the Christian neighbourhood of Bab-Touma, and massacred eight friars - Emanuele Ruiz, Carmelo Volta, Nicanore Ascanio, Nicola M. Alberca y Torres, Pietro Soler, Engelbert Kolland, Francesco Pinazo Peñalver, Giovanni Giacomo Fernández – and three Christians of the Maronite rite, the brothers Francesco, Abdel-Mooti and Raffaele Massabki.
The memory in Damascus
On the afternoon of Sunday 9 July, the day before the liturgical commemoration, a celebration in the Latin church dedicated to St Paul in the centre of Damascus was held. There is also a chapel in the church with the urn that holds the mortal remains of the eleven martyrs. After the Mass, the faithful formed a procession, with the relics of the martyrs at its head. They went through the streets of the old city, also in tribute to the thousands of martyrs, many unknown, who died in the same persecution. The stopping-places included in front of the house of the Massabki brothers. The procession ended in the Maronite church, where the final blessing was given.
Fr. Firas Lufti is the guardian of the convent of Bab-Touma. He describes the importance of this memory for the Christians of Damascus, who for over ten years have been living through the drama of war, as follows “The heroic life of these martyrs, the gift of the self for others, are a reminder of perseverance in faith until the end. The blood of the martyrs gives us courage, it gives us the strength to remain. I believe that our presence here today is a prolongation of what our martyrs did: welcome and dialogue with everyone.”
Ecumenism of martyrs
Brothers in baptism, bothers in martyrdom. Although of different religious confessions and rites, the “martyrs of Damascus” gave their lives for the same Christ. In view of the Jubilee of 2025, Pope Francis recently set up the “Commission of New Martyrs – Witnesses of the Faith,” to prepare “a Catalogue of all those who have shed their blood to confess Christ.” The study “will extend to all Christian confessions.” It is the concept of “ecumenism of martyrs”, of which the “martyrs of Damascus” are an example: “God transforms hatred into good, into peace and into an abundance of Grace, “said fr. Firas. “This is why in 1926 they were proclaimed blessed and we hope that Pope Francis will soon proceed with their canonization.”