100 Years Ago, Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide Marched Straight to Heaven

The prisoners in Mardin Castle knew that to die for the One who died for us all is the greatest honor.

Blessed Léonard Melki, Blessed Thomas Saleh and Blessed Ignatius Maloyan
Blessed Léonard Melki, Blessed Thomas Saleh and Blessed Ignatius Maloyan (photo: Public Domain)

The prisoners in Mardin Castle were rounded up at nightfall. Soldiers called out their names, one by one, and tied them with ropes. Rings were pressed around the necks, and chains put around the wrists, of those thought to be Armenian. All of them stood like that, for several hours, until the soldiers had finished arranging them into columns and rows. They were marched out through the prison gate.

The prisoners were young and old. No distinction had been made by the authorities as to whether they were Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant. Those belonging to the Latin or Chaldean or Syriac Rites had been bound all the same. They were all Christians, and thus deemed enemies of the state.

Mamdooh Bek, the chief of police of Mardin, led the caravan at the front. He considered himself to be a hero, a warrior for his faith, for this. His desire to lead this march had been rendered feasible only after Hilmi Bey, the district governor just a few days prior, had been deposed for energetically protesting the treatment that the Christians of Mardin had been dealt — the former governor being transferred to a new post, over in Mosul. 

Ignatius Maloyan, the Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Mardin, was in chains at the back of the caravan. The bruises on his body, from beatings he’d endured over the last week, were still sore. The bruise on his face from the pistol-whipping dealt to him by Mamdooh Bek was a fading bluish-purple. His toenails were extracted. The recent thrashings he’d taken on the soles of his feet made him walk with a limp.

The archbishop had been loyal to his country. He’d urged his fellow Catholics to remain loyal as well. But the lot of Christians in the Ottoman Empire had taken a turn since the outbreak of the Great War. While young men still were dug in the trenches and dying yonder in Gallipoli, weapons had been planted in the cathedral here in Mardin to serve as “evidence” of a planned insurrection. The archbishop had been arrested, dragged into court in chains, and given the choice to convert to Islam or to die. The beatings had begun when he’d refused to convert.

The prisoners continued marching onward.

“The Christian residents who leave their houses,” shouted a familiar voice, that of the town crier, “will be amputated and put together with their co-religionists.” 

The prisoners, more than 400 in all, many priests among them, exited that castle which, much like the empire, had long been in disrepair. They trudged along the main street. The fingers and feet of those who’d had their nails extracted bled. Some of the men had broken bones, and gashes on their heads. 

They passed through the Muslim quarters of Mardin. Women came out from their homes and mocked them and laughed at them. Children giggled and threw stones at them. They kept on marching.

They passed through the Christian quarter. The streets were silent and clear. Residents wept and prayed behind closed doors, and by the railings of their roofs, as the prisoners passed by their houses. Mourning had made it so easy to forget that these men were being marched straight to Heaven. 

They approached the western gate. The monks and missionaries, those in Mardin who still were free, went up to the roofs to see their friends for one last time and say farewell. They wondered whether they themselves would soon share a similar destiny as their chained brethren, of imitating the Lord even in his Passion.

The monks and missionaries on that roof looked down upon the prisoners, recognizing the battered faces of some, and recognizing the face of Christ in all. There among those prisoners was Brother Léonard Melki, a Lebanese Capuchin friar, who’d been falsely accused of conspiring with the French government. He’d been a great promoter of the Third Order of St. Francis during his time in Mardin. He likewise had been offered the choice to convert or die. His torture began when he’d declined to convert. Blood was trickling from his toes and fingers.

Brother Léonard wondered as he left the city whether his old friend, Brother Thomas Saleh, a Maronite Catholic, and fellow Capuchin friar, was elsewhere suffering for the Lord’s sake in such a manner. The time for Brother Thomas’ martyrdom would come soon enough.

Those men up on the roof continued watching on until the backs of their brethren faded into the darkness of night.

The desert night was turning cold. The lights of Mardin faded behind them, until it looked as though a match had been lit behind them, and then disappeared altogether. The waning crescent moon hovered above them on this night of June 10, 1915. The stars, as many as the children of Abraham, surrounded sister moon in the firmament.

The shivering prisoners continued to march barefoot in the desert for several hours. Blood stained the sands beneath the wounded. The pain of it was near to blinding for some. Some of them stumbled and fell. Those who could no longer walk were supported by those who could. They reached Adercheck, a Kurdish village, in the early morning hours of Friday, June 11, the Feast of the Sacred Heart. 

Some of the villagers got out of their homes to see what all of the commotion was about. The bulk of the prisoners were escorted by the soldiers onward from there, followed by curious villagers, to nearby caves.

They stopped. Mamdooh Bek stood there before the prisoners. He read to them what he’d insisted was an imperial decree saying that all Christians were considered traitors and were to be sentenced to death. He assured them that amnesty would be granted to those who converted to Islam and that they’d be returned to Mardin. Those unwilling to convert would be executed within the hour.

The archbishop replied that he would prefer to die as a Christian than to live as a Muslim. He knelt and prayed that the men along with him would accept their martyrdom courageously. 

The vast majority of the prisoners knelt with the archbishop.

A few of the men remained standing, nodding their heads, agreeing to convert. Soldiers made gestures with their hands for them to go along with some of the Kurdish villagers who were present, to immediately be brought before the local sheik, that they may say the words: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

The soldiers made their preparations. 

The archbishop ordered his priests to circulate among the other prisoners. They heard the confessions of those who soon would die, absolving them, using their chained hands to make the sign of the cross. 

The archbishop took what bread he could find. He said the words of consecration and had his priests distribute the Body of Christ. This one last feast had become an occasion for joy. The prisoners knew then what all the holy martyrs before them had taught: that to die for the One who died for us all is the greatest honor.

Some of the soldiers marveled at the faith of the prisoners as they watched on.

Rage swelled up from the heart of Mamdooh Bek until it felt as though his head would burst. He was a man who preferred to be feared, never defied. He stood next to the archbishop at the designated site and then gave the order.

The blasting sounds of gunfire erupted and echoed. Clouds of smoke filled the air. The stench of gunpowder filled the nostrils of the violent men like an unholy incense. Blood splattered from the bodies of the lined-up prisoners as they fell limp onto the earth below. Soon enough, all of the prisoners were dead, save for one.

The archbishop had been allowed to watch all of this.

Mamdooh Bek looked at the archbishop. He said that it was his religious duty to offer one last chance to say the words of the Shahadah and convert.

“I've told you I shall live and die for the sake of my faith and religion,” the archbishop replied. “I take pride in the Cross of my God and Lord.”

Mamdooh Bek coldly drew out his pistol and fired a shot at the archbishop.

“My God!” the archbishop cried with his last breath, “have mercy on me; into your hands I commend my spirit.” He collapsed onto the ground and died.

As their bodies were being disposed of, the newest dwellers of Paradise were welcomed to their eternal home.

Christians throughout the Muslim World face severe persecution today. Little to no distinction ever gets made between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians by those who persecute them. 

In May of this year the Holy See added the 21 Coptic Christian men who’d been executed for their faith by the Islamic State on Feb. 15, 2015, to the Roman Martyrology.

Blessed Ignatius Maloyan, the Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Mardin, was beatified Oct. 7, 2001, by Pope John Paul II. He’d spent much energy encouraging devotion to the Sacred Heart, and was martyred on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1915. His feast day is on 11.

Blessed Léonard Melki, along with Blessed Thomas Saleh (a Maronite Catholic martyred in 1917), both of whom were Capuchin Friars, were beatified by Pope Francis on June 4, 2022. Their feast day is June 10.

All of you Holy Martyrs, pray for us!