The Martyr of Trabzon
Lessons From the Death of a Good Priest
BY ROBERT ROYAL
January 14-20, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/10/07 at 10:00 AM
A few weeks after the murder of
Father Andrea Santoro, a priest of the Diocese of Rome living in
He picked up a copy of the popular French magazine Paris-Match and happened upon the
following description of Father Santoro’s simple
“In the parlor, the little Christmas tree was still up. In the priest’s monastic room, no one has touched anything. The heavy, checked bedcover is impeccably stitched, medicines stand on the rustic oak chest, the slippers are lined up at the foot of the bed. The only troubling detail: the bedtime book that Father Santoro had been reading in the final hours of his life, written by the American Robert Royal. The title was a premonition: The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century.”
I am still stunned by this connection of one of the most recent of Catholic martyrs to my account of his predecessors in the last century.
In the web of grace, of course, nothing is ever entirely an accident. But why Father Santoro should have been meditating on martyrs prior to his own unexpected death is and will remain a mystery.
Catholic priests are not often killed in
I myself have been quoted in several places recently,
not so much inaccurately as selectively, making the argument that the major
threat to Christians has shifted from the ideological atheisms of the 20th
century to the fundamentalist sects of the 21st. This is partly true, of
course, because the main ideologies — fascism, Nazism, communism — collapsed in
many places, although communism continues to persecute in
But it is worth being careful to understand exactly where the difficulties lie instead of invoking grand schemes like the clash of civilizations or prematurely bemoaning the failure of peaceful dialogue.
There are reasons for caution but also for hope in the situation in which we find ourselves.
This is quite evident in Father Santoro’s own
Anyone who tries to engage in dialogue with the Turks
— I have participated in interreligious discussions
both here and in
It is very common to hear from Turks, who are often
knowledgeable and balanced, as well as from representatives of other non-Arab
Muslim nations, that fundamentalist violence is not Islam, and those who
practice it are not zealous believers but simple thugs upon whom the West has
conferred a wholly unwarranted religious dignity.
But it does not take many people of a different bent
to give a distorted picture of the situation. The Paris-Match correspondent who went to
Young people were especially attracted to him. He
turned his attention towards the problems of Islam after the end of the Cold
War and went to the extreme eastern regions of
Georgian Orthodox Christians, many prostitutes who were poor women back home forced into a sordid trade abroad, found asylum in his church. The few converts from Islam to Christianity speak of him as extraordinary. As one reported: “His Masses were the most beautiful things I have ever seen.” And even ordinary local Muslims valued him for his kindness. Like Charles Foucauld almost a century ago, he did not die because he was involved in divisive proselytizing, but was establishing local contacts in an effort to reconcile Catholics and Muslims. These cases are always instructive because they remind us that fanatics do not attack religious or secular Westerners because we have done something wrong.
The idea that others only hate us because of our own sins is not only false, it forgets one of the greatest truths about the causes of Jesus’ own crucifixion: People can hate good as much as evil.
Duzhan Akdil, the psychologically unstable 16-year-old who killed Santoro, perhaps with the help of a wider set of accomplices, has been portrayed as part of the much talked about “clash of civilizations.”
But he seems like a poor specimen for such a grand notion.
To accept that view is to adopt the absurdly broad categories of the Muslim fanatics themselves who think that every disagreeable event in a culture like the West is the personal responsibility of every Westerner or Christian. It’s not true here or there.
We may yet see other loners like Duzhan Akdil or even organized networks systematically killing priests and other Christians. But we need to be clear about responsibilities in each specific case.
Akdil’s own father has been at great pains to deplore the act, has explained that in his family children were not raised to hate anyone, and has insisted that even in his own business he works with people of all sorts of religious backgrounds.
All this is quite believable of
There have been some reports that some local Muslims did not like the fact that Father Santoro allowed Christian prostitutes into his church and that there may even have been some altercation over the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad.
But I have seen over and over again stories of
similar circumstances leading up to the death of good men and women. The seven Trappist monks who were killed in 1996 at Tibhirine in
From everything we know about Father Santoro, it would be difficult to believe that he would have done anything other than deplore the disrespect to the founder of Islam in the Danish cartoons — while trying to reason with anyone who mistakenly thought those cartoons reflected an anti-Islamic sentiment in the West generally or among Western individuals such as himself noted for their courage and kindness.
We need to be firm and fearless in denouncing such events wherever they occur and for whatever reason. And I fear that we will see more than a few martyrs of Father Santoro’s kind because of current religious tensions.
But we will be disrespecting the memory of a good and holy man, and of his work, if we ourselves assign blame to the abstract clash of civilizations and are not careful about understanding the particulars of why he died.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.
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