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A saint-making record is also a diplomatic headache for Pope Francis

Franco Origlia / Getty Images Contributor

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he leaves at the end of the Holy Mass and Canonization Ceremony at St. Peter's Square. Sunday.

Editor's note: This story includes a correction.

ROME -- Pope Francis canonized more than 800 Catholics in Saint Peter’s Square Sunday – the largest number to be elevated to sainthood at once in the history of the Catholic Church.

The choice of some of the new saints was also striking, touching on the already-fragile relationship between Christianity and Islam.

The new saints included hundreds of laymen from the southern Italian port town of Otranto who were slain in the 15th century by the invading Ottoman Turkish army after they refused to convert to Islam.

In 1480, after conquering Constantinople – modern day Istanbul - the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed II planned to invade Rome, and Otranto became his army’s port of entrance into Italy.

The local population fought back in a week-long siege, putting up a brave but hopeless resistance. When Ottoman soldiers finally overrun the town, they were ordered to kill every man over the age of 15 who refused to convert to Islam.

More than 800 resisted, locking themselves up into the town’s Cathedral. Their ringleader, local shoemaker Antonio Primaldo, was first to be beheaded. According  to local legend, his headless body remained standing until the last of his fellow townspeople was killed.

Since then, Primaldo and his townsfolk, who chose to die rather than betray their Catholic faith, have been hailed as martyrs. Their bones and skulls – proudly on display behind glass walls in the Cathedral of Otranto – are well-known Catholic relics and a popular pilgrimage destination.

But the choice to highlight their sacrifice may put a strain on the already fragile relationship between the Catholic Church and Islam.

Ever since his election, Pope Francis has called for greater dialogue between Christianity and other religions, in particular Islam. And so far, he has acted on that promise. He washed the feet of a young Muslim woman jailed in a juvenile prison on Holy Thursday, and reached out to the many “Muslim brothers and sisters” during his first Good Friday procession.

So why risk creating yet another inter-faith row with a celebration which some in the Muslim world may be seen as a provocation?

The answer is that it wasn’t Pope Francis’ choice in the first place. The decision to canonize the hundreds of Otranto martyrs was rubber-stamped by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, on Feb. 11 - the same day he announced his resignation.

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Cardinals from around the world gathered in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was a departing act of a pontiff that had become concerned about the mounting discrimination suffered by Christian minorities living in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab spring.

Pope Francis shares his predecessor’s concern. “By venerating the martyrs of Otranto” he said at Sunday’s canonization mass, “We ask God to protect the many Christians who in these times, and in many parts of the world, are still victims of violence”.

The Vatican’s relationship with Islam took a nosedive in 2006 when Benedict – now the Pope Emeritus - enraged Muslims by quoting the 14th-century byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiogolos, who said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

It was an uncomfortable parting gift for his successor, who now faces an uphill struggle to rekindle ties with Islam.

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